Jail sees food and farming as track for learning, jobs, nutrition — and change

Jail sees food, farming as track for learning, jobs, nutrition — and a better future

  • Shay Kuntz from Cape Cod and Russ Lilly of Buckland, minimum security inmates at the Franklin County House of Correction, weed the vegetable garden on the grounds of the Jail on Elm Street in Greenfield. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Shay Kuntz from Cape Cod and Russ Lilly of Buckland, minimum security inmates at the Franklin County House of Correction, clear rocks from three new raised beds in the secure area of the old jail.

  • Kimball House resident Ricky Aviles samples some of the basil he helped grow at a Franklin County House of Corrections garden recorder staff/Richie Davis

  • Kimball House resident Ricky Aviles samples some of the basil he helped grow at a Franklin County House of Corrections garden. REcorder Staff/Richie Davis

Published: 6/17/2016 11:14:27 PM


Recorder Staff

The peppers and marigolds, garlic, herbs, beans, basil and tomatoes growing in six neat raised beds might be in any garden like this one, protected by a sturdy chain-link fence.

Yet this 3-year-old Greenfield growing area — and a chicken-wire guarded garden with blueberry and raspberry bushes, a pair of young apple trees and a small container of strawberry plants — is dwarfed by the giant, razor-wire-topped fence at the Franklin County House of Correction.

Tended by pre-release inmates who have been through a for-credit Greenfield Community College course in organic farming, the fresh produce will be used to prepare meals at the minimum security Kimball House, using recipes taught as part of a class in nutrition and cooking.

This is just a small part of a collaborative program that’s been bringing together GCC and the sheriff’s department with the Franklin County Community Development Corp., Just Roots, Seeds of Solidarity and other players. they have developed for a muli-layered approach to reduce recidivism, improve nutrition, and to develop job skills, post-release employment opportunities and networks with the larger community.

There’s even a piece that teaches the pre-release population about co-ops as a business model they can use to put their new skills and passions to work once they’re back in the community, and another piece to help them build healthier connections with their families.

Beginning with a 2013 $15,000 Perkins Grant the jail received to establish a garden and to collaborate with GCC’s Farm and Food Systems program, two instructors were trained to teach in an “Inside Out” initiative that brought credit courses inside the jail, with the demonstration garden set up in 2014 and 2015 as a learning laboratory.

“This was an inspiration garden for everything else,” says Abrah Desdale, who coordinated the GCC program and now oversees the jail farming program as a consultant.

At its most basic level, gardening is therapeutic to give incarcerated men a chance to work the soil with their hands, to connect with nature, and learn gardening skills, as research in horticultural therapy has shown, she says.

Growing food also offers vocational skills in a promising part of the area’s economy. With help from Just Roots — which has offered internships at the Greenfield Community Farm — participants can get hands-on training and experience while also building relationships with people connected to the farming community. The jail is working with Harmon Personnel Services and the CDC, which operates the Greenfield Food Processing Center and can be another source of work for inmate students who have taken the GCC course in food preservation at the jail.

Assistant Jail Superintendent Ed Hayes says there is “a robust industry for small, organic farms” along with the food processing center and other related job opportunities in the area.

“There’s a network of individuals invested in the local community who are interested in agriculture, who are very supportive, who want to introduce the people they’re working with here to this farming community … There’s a flavor to that community that is very health oriented and spiritually focused and community focused. These are values that are very well received by the people we’re working with …. Developing relationships with people from these other kinds of communities, maybe that’s even the most important thing.”

Turn lives around

The program gives inmates exposure not only to GCC courses — an incentive for them to take more courses toward matriculation — but also to the idea that there are things to be learned that can help them turn their lives around.

Ricky Aviles, a 36-year-old Holyoke man who’s was awaiting pre-release, said of the farm program: “I think it’s very therapeutic for me; it takes me somewhere else. It’s a whole different world experience.”

Aviles, who took a GCC sociology course during his two years at the jail and plans to continue at GCC to earn a degree in human services that he can use use to some day set up a program for at-risk youth, including a gardening component, remembers a gardening program he once took part in in Palmer. Otherwise, he’s had no experience with gardening and wasn’t sure what “organic” meant or what compost was.

“This was nasty stuff,” he jokes as he reaches into the bin constructed in the jail’s shop and shows off the finished compost made from food scaps he’s hauled out from the Kimball House kitchen.

Shay Kuntz, a 34-year-old minimum security inmate from Cape Cod, has an arborculture degree from the University of Massachusetts Stockbridge School of Agriculture. He seized the opportunity to have access to a brand-new garden of three raised beds in the secure recreation yard.

“Having access to come out anytime in the sunshine and water the garden really appealed to a lot of guys,” said Kuntz, who has run his own arborist business and has enjoyed gardening before being incarcerated on a drug-related assault charge two years ago. “A lot of these guys are so disconnected and cut off from so much. When people get put outside, in nature, a really profound change begins to happen. This program, I feel, can benefit a lot of people. What’s happening (here) is really amazing.”

Among the most adventurous parts of the mix is a GCC for-credit course in Cooperatives in Farm and Food Systems, to be taught this fall for the third time by Andrew Stachiw of Toolbox for Education and Social Action. The course introduces yet another career path for a population whose history of incarceration can be a serious challenge in hiring.

The classes in worker-owned co-ops give inmates a chance to work out their ideas for farm-related businesses they can launch on the outside. One potential startup business, a year in planning, according to Dresdale, could expand on the jail’s composting of some of its food waste to also compost food waste from GCC as well as Greenfield’s residential food waste. Inmates could be offered a job after their release, and if the business is successful, they could become worker-owners.

“What excites me,” says Stachiw, “is that for people who have been incarcerated, it’s extremely difficult to get a job, let alone a job that provides an opportunity for ownership and self-determination and something that people would want to do for a lifetime. Worker cooperatives provide those opportunity, where you can control your own destiny and have a job that’s empowering.”

Just taking the class, and learning how co-operatives work, can in itself be powerful, Stachiw says.

There’s also a small garden being set up within the contained area of the medium-security block, in addition to a classes in introduction to farming, food systems and nutrition and food preservation.

And there are longer-range plans to build a small greenhouse in the minimum-security yard for inmates to extend the growing season, and even a chance to develop a large “incubation farm” — actually, more of an “alumni community farm,” where after incarceration, these fledgling farmers from the House of Correction or from GCC can share plots to keep their hands in the soil.

That proposed farm, on a roughly 14-acre parcel of jail land near the Green River, could be part of a plan for shared equipment and mentoring by the Just Roots staff, with produce going to either Just Roots’ Just Soup project or to feed the jail population itself, said Dresdale.

“We’re trying to do the whole picture and work out the tweaks and kinks, so this could become a model around state,” says Dresdale, who has already begun discussions with the Hampshire County House of Correction.

She also foresees the possibility, if a greenhouse is built, for the minimum-security inmates to grow bedding plants in the spring, which they could sell at the Greenfield Farmers Market and also send home for their families, “so their kids, nephews, whoever, can grow food and feel connected, so they’re feeding their families. And when the guys come out, there’s a cultural connection, because the family is already starting to grow food at home.”

Already, Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc of the nonprofit Seeds of Solidarity Educational Foundation hope to begin offering a class to help the families of pre-release inmates learn how to plant and then cook with fresh vegetables.

With that bumper crop of hoped-for effects, eventually including supplementing the jail’s high-carbohydrate diet and reducing recidivism, the overall program fits well with the “holistic treatment approach” at the Elm Street facility.

It’s also an opportunity, says the jail’s farming and food systems program coordinator Joshua Freund, to try to narrow the cultural gap between the array of “exciting stuff” happening in the regional food economy and the jail inmates, who he said tend to come from a less privileged economic and cultural background.

This connects these men to those resources, and exposes them to a whole other world a lot of them didn’t even know exists, says Freund, a graduate of the GCC program: “We’re all working together, sharing ideas, and resources.”

He says he’s seen inmates, some of whom have never spent time in nature, get excited by what they’ve just experienced for the first time in the garden, even talking about how they can’t wait to share it with their families on the outside.

“It really taps into something so simple,” he says, “the interplay between play and the immediate gratification about something they can feel good about.”


You can reach Richie Davis at: rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269


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