Ruling the roost at the Knox County Jail
Rockland — If it were up to Sheriff Donna Dennison, the entire 19-acre swath of property surrounding the Knox County Jail would be working farm land.
"We're waiting for the cows and horses to come," joked Chief Deputy Tim Carroll.
Three years ago, under Dennison's direction, the jail tilled land to grow vegetables, and each continuing year, the space has expanded to include cultivation of swiss chard, corn, and thousands of pounds of potatoes to supplement the jail's menu. The gardens are tended on two acres, and some inmates have tried vegetables they never had before being in jail.
The project started with a Midcoast Health Coalition grant to purchase seeds, and donations have kept the garden expanding. Jail staff have taken courses on seed saving, and have in turn taught inmates the basics of gardening and composting.
Last spring, 25 red comet hens were introduced to the mix for eggs, and two dozen chicks were incubated, a gift from a local farm. The risk in incubating eggs was that 10 of the chicks turned out to be roosters, now mature and sauntering around their pen.
"There are some fancy ones, too," said Dennison, notably, a few of the Araucana breed.
The roosters are kept separated from the hens, and get along fine, but jail officials note they are trying to think of what to do with them.
As chicks, the birds were christened names like Pip and Perch by inmates, who grew fond of the biddies. Inmates made a log cabin and toys, including a see-saw, for them in the woodworking shop.
In addition to fostering confidence and providing nutrient rich food, the garden and poultry raising is saving money. The county should expect to save nearly $5,000 this year. The potato harvest alone will last the jail four to five months, and inmates picked green beans for days, totaling 297 pounds.
Pumpkins and turnips are the last crops harvested now, before the frost sets in, and inmates have planted winter rye to enrich the soil during the winter
Inmate Bobby Young boasted he has 25 women that run to him everyday, referring to the hens that wait for his arrival each morning.
He calls his favorite chicken Whitey, a small, sleek hen that refused to be picked up, although he said she usually lets him. Young raised rabbits before, and said he has now become attached to the hens. He has also learned their particular tastes, including corn on the cob.
"They are fascinated by the hens. It is really remarkable, the pleasure they get out of it," said Dennison of the poultry raising.
Inmates must be considered trustees to work in the program, meaning they have no disciplinary or behavioral issues. Every 16 hours an inmate works, they receive eight hours off their sentence.
Inmates also made the shed and the coops for the chickens.
"Everybody has something they are good at, some talent, a niche they can fill," said Assistant Programs Director Tim McFarland.
McFarland said the amount of talent that is seen in the jail is tremendous. Inmate Nathaniel Hussey painted a portrait of K-9 yellow Labrador, Jake, and was then asked to design and create a mural on the wall of the jail. Art covering the walls of a normally sterile looking space makes the atmosphere more welcoming to visiting families and those incarcerated, said McFarland.
McFarland said Dennison is engaged in brainstorming new ideas, and working with inmates. He said the jail wants to move away from just throwing people in cells, and instead, actively work on reducing recidivism rates.
"Inmates want to change, and we're here to help them make that change, " McFarland said. "It's like planting a seed, but it's up to the inmate to see how far it goes."
McFarland said he has witnessed a tremendous change in inmates when they are given the opportunity to work in the gardens and with the chickens.
"When you give them something to care for, it teaches a good life skill," he said.
"Before you know it, they're calling it 'my garden', added Maintenance Officer Ralph Cline. "The inmates take great pride in it and are invested."
He added the programs have boosted the morale and self-esteem of both the inmates and jail staff.
The jail also offers programs on resume writing, basic computer skills and GED courses. " We're trying to correct as well as teach basic skills," said McFarland.
Cline said many inmates that have committed minor crimes are in custody because their situation is brought on by poverty — they are in between jobs or out of a home. Teaching new skills and providing the opportunity to learn and be involved is imperative in transforming their outlook, as well as aid them in developing a plan.
Dennison said many female inmates take pride in working in the garden as well, driving the tractor, and taking on projects unfamiliar to them before, such as installing sheet rock and using power tools. Many women worked to ready the new sheriff's office. "I was proud of them, they did a great job," Dennison said.
Dennison, who said she spent most of her life on a farm, believes it's important to remember how our ancestors lived, and learn from their self-sufficiency.
Courier Publications' reporter Juliette Laaka can be reached at 594-4401 ext. 118 or via email at email@example.com.
594-4401 ext. 118
Juliette primarily covers the cops and courts beat for The Courier-Gazette.
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