November 4, 2009

River Cities Harvest feeds thousands of needy people in northeastern Kentucky. Their donations come from many places, and perhaps the most unexpected is a garden tended by inmates of the Federal Correctional Institution near Ashland.

Lori Bowling, University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Servicehorticulture agent in Boyd County, started working with FCI Ashland administrators several years ago to offer inmates an opportunity to become Master Gardeners.

"This gives them something they can build on once they are released," she said. "They can pursue an education in horticulture. They can go on to college and get a degree if they so desire; this gives them the building blocks. And it gives them the opportunity to find a job in the horticulture industry or horticulture field that they can be a part of and give back."

Bowling teaches Master Gardener classes, and the inmates also have to complete 30 hours of service in the garden to earn the title. Only nonviolent offenders who have fewer than 10 years remaining on their sentences are eligible to participate in the program. FCI Ashland has two facilities: a low-security prison and a prison camp. The prison camp inmates are the ones who get to participate in the Master Gardener Program. Camp Administrator Larry Whitman said the program has many benefits.

"It's good for the taxpayer; it's good for our neighborhoods," he said. "The inmates have a chance to rehabilitate themselves, to learn work skills and to learn work ethics. That's another key thing, actually learning a work ethic - learning how to get up on time and to work for a supervisor."

Inmates plant, maintain and harvest the produce that eventually makes its way from a 6-acre garden on FCI Ashland grounds to River Cities Harvest. This year, FCI Ashland donated more than 30,000 pounds of fruits and vegetables to the nonprofit food bank, which organizers say is about half of what they would've produced had the weather been more cooperative.

"This is our largest source of fresh produce," said John McGlone, who is on the board of directors for River Cities Harvest.  "We do have a lot of farmers at the farmers market who donate, but at one fell swoop, this project gives us most of the fresh produce that we have throughout the year."

For many of the participating inmates, the program is far more than just something to pass the time.

"I've learned a lot about gardening," said inmate Ronald Clark, a Lexington native. "The soil samples in the ground, what makes the product grow; I knew nothing about that. I was raised around farming all my life. I never really took the time to put forth the effort to find out what it was in the soil to make the product grow."

Clark has less than a year remaining on his sentence and hopes to enter the horticulture field when he is released.

McGlone said it's good to see the inmates working on something meaningful and making a good situation out of something bad.

"Often in their lives they don't have a lot of pride in what they have done," he said. "This is a major accomplishment. They take so much pride in what they do, and they can literally see the fruits of their labor every day."

Lucy Davis is the director at River Cities Harvest. She agrees with McGlone that the Master Gardener Program is a win-win for the community and FCI Ashland. She said it's nice to see the transformation in the inmates.

"They are always excited about what they have grown, and they want to show you how beautiful it is - what great work they have done," she said.  "They always have a few recipes they want to tell us about."

In the last session, about 17 inmates completed the program and became certified Master Gardeners. Bowling plans to keep offering the classes and working with FCI Ashland officials to grow a variety of fresh produce for River Cities Harvest in the future.

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