Randall Liberty still remembers the note he sent nearly 20 years ago to Kennebec County Sheriff Frank Hackett. Liberty, at that point a deputy just a few years on the job, simply asked Hackett why the county did not have a garden.

“I had this crazy idea,” Liberty said, chuckling at the memory.

Liberty, now Kennebec County’s sheriff, believes more than ever that having jail inmates grow vegetables can play an important role in helping feed the hungry and giving inmates a sense of purpose.

“I think it’s therapeutic,” Liberty said. “It’s a meaningful endeavor.”

What started as just a 2-acre garden 17 years ago has grown to roughly 11 acres spread over several locations, including Lawrence High School in Fairfield, Waterville resident Ken Rossignol’s and a plot in Benton.

The largest gardens, however, are on land off Cony Road that is owned by the Maine Department of Conservation’s Bureau of Parks and Lands. Kennebec County currently gardens about six acres in the fields, which were once owned and farmed by the Augusta Mental Health Institute.

The county and Department of Conservation are working on an agreement that would allow the county to plant an additional 17 acres.

“The idea is to have more land to rotate the crops,” Liberty said.

David Rodrigues of the Maine Department of Conservation said the inmate gardens are appealing because they allow the fields to maintain their historic purpose.

“We find the use that the sheriff’s office is proposing has all kinds of benefits,” Rodrigues said. “It’s a great partnership we’re trying to develop.”

The inmate garden program is run by Liberty, Lt. Michael Hicks and Correctional Officers Mike Gagnon and John Matthews, all of whom have gone through a master gardener program offered by the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension.

“The original intention of the gardens, when the jail was providing its own food, was to help reduce the amount spent on feeding the inmates,” Liberty said. “It’s evolved to be a dual function now.”

Kennebec County’s contract with Aramark provides inmate meals for $1.37 apiece. A small portion of what the inmates grow in the gardens is used to supplement and enhance those meals, Liberty said.

“There’s no financial benefit to the county,” he said. “There’s a real benefit to the community.”

That’s because the vast majority of the vegetables raised by the inmates are donated to Harvest for Hunger, a program run by the UMaine cooperative extension that encourages farmers to grow extra rows, or donate gleanings, to supply area food banks.

Harvest for Hunger hopes to collect 250,000 pounds worth of food this year, of which an estimated 100,000 will come from private and public gardens across Kennebec County, Liberty said.

The inmates’ gardens typically supply about 50,000 pounds of food, but expanding the size of the gardens and working with the Cooperative Extension will help far exceed that number this year.

“Our goal is 75,000 pounds this year,” Liberty said. “We’re on track to do that.”

Liberty hopes to do more than just increase the number of gardens at the Cony Road site, he is planning a barn to protect equipment and provide classroom space for inmates to learn about farming and nutrition. Liberty also would like to plant an orchard and begin a composting program.

The Sheriff is planning to kick off a fundraising effort this fall aimed at securing private and public grants to improve the facilities

“I hope we can be a statewide resource for other counties,” Liberty said. “We need to find ways to save money. Maybe part of that will be raising our food.”

Liberty, who sits on the state Board of Corrections, said corrections officials across the state are searching for ways to reduce spending in the wake of state funding that is virtually flat this year and next.

“We need to find, within the existing system, $1.5 million in efficiencies,” Liberty said. “This may be part of the way to do that.”

Kennebec County is not alone in its gardening effort. Somerset County Sheriff Barry Delong last year launched an inmate garden program outside the Madison jail. The garden, which covers about 5 acres, enjoyed mixed success.

“This year I think it’s going to be 100 times better,” Delong said.

Delong, who was born on a farm in Aroostook County, decided to have a garden after moving to the new jail in 2008.

“We have some land here and I hated to see it go to waste,” Delong said. “It’s a pretty good learning process. It’s cost effective for us as well.”

Delong said most of the vegetables went to the inmates, but he was able to give a truckload of pumpkins and squash to residents at Seton Village, a retirement home in Waterville.

“You would have thought we gave them a million dollars,” Delong said. “Many of them had gardens and now can’t. They really appreciate and enjoy the fresh stuff.”

Indeed, vegetables grown by inmates are helping to meet a need throughout Kennebec County, said Ken Stevens of Northeast DreamCenter in Winslow. Stevens accepts the food collected by Harvest for Hunger and distributes it to 23 food pantries and soup kitchens through the Kennebec County Community Action Program.

“A lot of it is perishable,” he said. “My job is to get it to the pantry that next can use it best.”

Stevens said the food being grown by inmates provides a “significant” cost savings.

“These food pantries are struggling,” Stevens said. “Anything you give them, they’re just so blessed. People are screaming for food.”

Stevens has spent the past 22 years helping former prisoners learn trades and land jobs. The unseen benefit of the inmate gardens, Stevens said, is the purpose it gives to the men and women who work them. Many of the inmates are indirectly providing food for their own families, he said.

“Any place you can give them purpose, hope and some level of self-esteem, it’s a step toward reconciliation to living correctly in the community,” Stevens said.

Caragh Fitzgerald, extension educator for the UMaine’s Cooperative Extension, has provided technical guidance for Kennebec County’s gardens. Fitzgerald said Harvest for Hunger is trying to meet food pantries’ growing need by encouraging more donations from area gardeners.

“We’re trying to create a movement and an awareness for the need to donate to food pantries in a way pantries can handle them,” Fitzgerald said.

Whether for the benefits to the community or to the inmates, Stevens said he is a fan of inmate garden programs.

“It’s budget saving and the inmates can earn some time toward getting out,” he said. “Some of them don’t like it, but it’s better than sitting in a 6-by-6.”

Craig Crosby — 621-5642

[email protected]

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