WESTOVER, Md. (AP) — Their work begins just after 8 a.m. each day.
Five or six men are assigned to tend to each of three gardens, where more than a dozen varieties of fruits and vegetables are grown.
There’s no irrigation system. The men do it all — from manually watering the crops to pulling weeds, as they work toward harvesting thousands of pounds in organic produce each year.
They take a break at about 1 p.m., then return to nurture the gardens until about 7 p.m.
Behind the walls of Eastern Correctional Institution in Somerset County, 16 inmates continue this labor seven days a week, even toiling through the winter months to ensure the soil is ready for planting come spring.
Their first harvest of the 2021 season weighed in at 764 pounds, which is believed to be the gardens’ largest yield yet for the start of a season.
The gardens’ spread of produce includes kale, cabbage, beets, tomatoes, yellow onions, eggplant, cantaloupe, watermelon, zucchini and bell peppers.
“That’s beautiful,” officials exclaimed as they combed through boxes of fresh greens from the first harvest Thursday before piling them into the bed of a pickup truck.
Project director Sharon Lynch of the Somerset County Health Department explained that the boxes will be divvied up among roughly 20 community partners. From there, they will reach family tables in Somerset and Wicomico counties.
The initiative began in 2014, funded by grant money from the Maryland Community Health Resources Commission as a project to address food insecurity and childhood obesity in Somerset County.
With only two grocery stores and a Dollar General in the county, the options for fresh fruits and vegetables are slim.
And what is available isn’t always affordable.
“With just a little bit of money — less than $3,000 a year — the inmates at ECI have been able to grow and maintain and harvest this garden for us,” Lynch said. “In seven years, they have grown for us 66,000 pounds of produce.”
The program started with a three-quarter-acre plot on the prison property, but it has since expanded to place a garden on each side of the main prison compound and at the annex.
For some, the experience of gardening is new.
Somerset County Health Officer Danielle Weber noted there are men in the gardens who never touched this kind of work before coming to ECI.
“There is a whole new skillset for these individuals that they will have,” she said.
One inmate said the best part of the work is all the fresh air he gets, and for another, it’s as simple as loving gardening — neither was allowed to be identified by name or face.
Correctional officer Cynthia Dodson, who supervises the gardens, said the inmates’ “awesome job” this year is going to help a lot of people.
“They’re proud of what they do. I mean, you can tell, just in the way they work and the way things look and how they keep it,” Dodson said.
The return on investment, both in financial and human terms, makes it a “home run program” in the eyes of Secretary Robert Green of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, or DPSCS.
Weekly harvest collections are set to occur through the end of October — a prospect that has Green looking forward to the impact the gardens can have as local families recover from the past year’s financial strain.
The 2020 season alone saw the inmates harvest 13,000 pounds of produce, despite the constraints of a pandemic.
Families needed that help more than ever.
“We’re a lot more than a facility of confinement ...” Green stressed. “You allow us to be part of the communities that we’re in.”
DPSCS works to place people in correctional facilities in regions that our closest to where they live, which means many of the inmates at ECI are from the Eastern Shore or have family in the area, explained O. Wayne Hill, the department’s deputy secretary of operations.
Working in the gardens gives those men a chance to have a positive, direct influence on people they know by providing them healthy food options.
“It’s really a full circle kind of program,” Hill said.