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Kansas prison farm trains inmates, feeds needy

June 12, 2011 at 12:00 a.m. | Updated June 12, 2011 at 12:00 a.m.

LEAVENWORTH, Kan. (AP) - A prison farm at the U.S. Penitentiary in Leavenworth is benefiting both the inmates who grow the produce and Kansas City-area families who get fresh, healthy food for free - all at no cost to the taxpayers.

Some inmates from Leavenworth's minimum-security prison camp, who are imprisoned for non-violent crimes such as fraud and embezzlement, volunteer to work outside the secure perimeter to grow tomatoes, potatoes, sweet corn, watermelon, onions, radishes and other crops.

Last year more than 80,000 pounds of the prison produce went to needy families in the greater Kansas City area. This year, estimates put donated produce at up to 200,000 pounds, The Kansas City Star reported.

Joe Mason, Leavenworth's food service manager, started the prison's Therapy and Mentor Horticulture program in 2008 with groundskeeper and garden supervisor Don Sargent.

Because the U.S. Bureau of Prisons cannot use federal money for community programs, Mason designed it to be funded by outside donations. He took the idea to Brian Habjan, a Leavenworth banker, who led fundraising for the farm.

Habjan said the prison had a farm in the 1980s but discontinued it after a warden felt it should not continue. But the prison started growing food for prisoners about four years ago and then decided to expand the program.

Virtually all equipment used for the farm is donated or is free government surplus. The seeds are also donated by a Leavenworth domestic violence shelter and it is funded by civic groups.

Mason said the prison farm just makes sense.

"Everybody wins," he said. "The environment wins. The institution wins. The inmates win. The community wins. Everybody's winning here."

The prison farm in ecologically responsible. The prison composts food waste. That compost is eaten by thousands of red wiggler worms, which eventually change the waste into rich, organic soil and liquid fertilizer that Mason calls "black gold."

"If you were to buy that on the street, you're talking 30 bucks a quart or more," Mason said.

Also, last year the prison captured 700,000 gallons of rainwater to use on the farm.

The produce is used to feeds the prison population and gives inmates a chance to give back, while not costing the prison a thing.

Mason set up the prison's horticulture apprenticeship program so that inmates can receive education credits through the Department of Labor.

"(Most people) have a perception that it's just lock 'em up and throw away the key," he said. "I don't look at it like that. I think we should train these inmates. Give them skills. Let them take them with them, and not come back."

He said one inmate how finished the program got a job with a chemical company when he was released and another is the manager of a landscaping company.

Sargent said the experience can help prisoners in many ways.

"They're learning how to grow things, and it's a newfound interest for them," he said. "We teach them that even if they don't do this for a living when they are released, they can do it to supplement their income by growing their own food."

Prison officials declined requests for inmate interviews, citing privacy laws.

John Groves, a former prison employee who coordinates the delivery of the produce to food pantries and other agencies, has seen how the program helps the needy.

"Fresh produce at the grocery store is very expensive," he said. "We've had ladies who have come (to pick up free produce) and said they didn't know what they would do without this program.

"You see people come down in wheelchairs or walkers, or with friends who help them carry the vegetables back to their apartment. They can take as much as they want until it's gone. It's making a huge difference in their lives, because they probably wouldn't be getting fresh produce otherwise."

"The biggest thing for us is that the public realize that this is at no cost to the taxpayers," camp administrator Tom Sheldrake said. "This is all done through donations, volunteer work and prison labor."

Information from: The Kansas City Star,


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