Growing Community at the Dunn County Jail
When I was taking a short course in calculus during my college days, my professor presented us with a problem. He gave us the rate of growth for the U.S. total population and the rate of growth for the U.S. prison population. He challenged us to find the year in which every person in the U.S. would be imprisoned. I arrived at the answer during that class period. I correctly projected a U.S. prison-state within my lifetime.
While this exercise was meant to teach some principles of mathematics, the lasting lesson for me was the absurdity of prison growth in my country. Its rapid swelling would one day overtake the rate that we were populating our country. Even before that juncture, though, the number of people going through our correctional facilities would surpass the number going through our education system: more folks with a rap sheet than a high school diploma. That is the course we are taking. What is one to do? In the face of the unpleasant reality of a skyrocketing prison population — over seven million under correctional supervision (prison, parole or probation) in 2009, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics — one can only try to scrape together some positive residuals.
Well, it takes more than one; actually, it takes a whole bunch of volunteers to turn these statistics into a positive outcome. Here at the Dunn County Jail in Menomonie, the rehabilitative services offered to the inmates include creative writing, GED education, A.A., anger management and, most recently, a jail garden. These programs, mostly run by volunteers, provide a constructive outlet for prisoners that would otherwise leave the jail no better suited for life back in their community.
My involvement with programming at the Dunn County Jail began this year when I joined a team of community members working with inmates in a patch of garden behind the jail facility. This was the second garden season at the jail and the program was still malleable, ready for each volunteer to make his or her mark.
So, we — Claudia, Bill, Diane, Rose, Judith, Arthur, and I, with the blessing of jail staffers, Sherry and Dale — set out to lead the inmates in growing a vegetable garden.
We start with the soil, because without healthy soil, there can be no healthy plants. Two composting operations drive our healthy soil campaign. The first is a small compost bin made of an eight foot section of fence encircling a pile of the jail’s kitchen scraps, garden refuse and yard waste. This pile is used to process the excess from the jail facility and teach composting to the inmates. The second compost operation is much larger. Loads of straw and manure are trucked in after the Dunn County Fair each year, fashioned into rows, and maintained with tractors loaned from a supplier up the road. These rows of compost are the key to enriching the soil and increasing the yield from the garden.
At the heart of our gardening operations were a few committed inmates that took a liking to garden work. Al, Greg, and Bob took advantage of the opportunity to work outdoors, in the sometimes sweltering heat, by logging hundreds of combined hours in the garden. As volunteer coordinators, we provided the framework for these gardeners to work within and gave them the opportunity to succeed. The result: over 1,600 pounds of potatoes, pumpkins, onions, tomatoes, mixed greens, peas, beans, and other vegetables grown for the Stepping Stones Food Pantry. A donation of over 3,300 servings of fresh vegetables worth a USDA estimated $2,800, making our garden inmates some of the most charitable members of our community.
The gardeners have built hoop houses and cold frames to extend our garden’s growing season. They have also looked to the adjacent woodlot for potential forest harvests such as raspberries, blueberries, and mushrooms. They have planted apple trees with the expectation of providing a perennial source of fruit for their community.
Moreover, roughly 250 pounds of produce found its way into the jail kitchen. The 500 servings of sweet corn, squash, potatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and greens that were fed into the jail kitchen were worth nearly $300.
That is money that the dietary staff can budget into their production for next year. That is money that can be reinvested into grass fed beef, free range eggs, and local dairy. That is money that can grow into a more sustainable jail that requires fewer tax dollars to run.
The patch of garden behind the jail, fueled by volunteer hours and an impressive mound of compost, has the potential to provide the fresh vegetable needs for not only the jail kitchen, but also the Elderly Nutrition Program. This program services the Meals on Wheels Program, provides daily meals at ten sites around the county, and operates from the same kitchen at the Dunn County Judicial Center.
Suddenly, this small garden has the big potential to provide fresh produce to the most underserved portions of our county’s population.
Right now, the jail garden is at the tipping point of sustainability. The further development of this project hinges on volunteers and donations to keep up with the prison population. As inmates cycle through the jail, in their moment of utmost crisis, they are ripe to be exposed to lessons in an encyclopedia of sustainable lifestyles. One of these lessons includes an education in gardening, composting, forestry, and construction provides tools to fight the cycle of recidivism by easing the effect of poverty through increased sustainable practices in the households that need it most.
As they learn these lessons, inmates are in the position to grow food for the elderly and impoverished while providing for their own kitchen.
With the right kind of involvement from privileged members of the community, we can catch our neighbors at their lowest point, support them by giving them the ability to support themselves and become leaders in the community.
While our prisons are not going away and our tax money continues to be spent on corrections rather than schools, we can make the best of this situation by giving inmates a new education — one that we would wish for a member of our family.
I know there are dozens of apt, informed, and active citizens in Dunn County that believe in the values we are teaching at the jail garden. Now, it is time to join us in creating a better community by giving the least fortunate a chance to improve themselves.
Trevor Peterson serves as an AmeriCorps VISTA working for food security initiatives in Dunn Co. through UW-Stout’s Involvement and Leadership Office. Aside from working in the jail garden, Trevor has co-organized events such as the Food for Thought Film Series, MLK, Jr. Day Concert and Conversation, and the Dunn Co. Local Food Summit. He currently has an advisory role with the Menomonie Parks Department and strives to make accessible growing space a part of the parks system. Stay tuned for upcoming VISTA projects, since Trevor will be serving in Dunn Co. through November 2012.
If you would like more information about VISTA projects or would like to become involved with the Dunn Co. Jail Garden, you can email Trevor at: firstname.lastname@example.org or call (715) 232-1328.