Prisoners feast on fruits of their labors

November 02, 2001 12:00 am
Stephen Williamson prepares potatoes while Kevin Vinciguerra (background) cuts small pumpkins for baking. Powder River Correctional Facility also gave food grown by inmates to community food banks, the hospital, Community Connections, New Directions Northwest and the Snake River Correctional Institution. More than 35,000 pounds of potatoes were harvested this year. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).
Stephen Williamson prepares potatoes while Kevin Vinciguerra (background) cuts small pumpkins for baking. Powder River Correctional Facility also gave food grown by inmates to community food banks, the hospital, Community Connections, New Directions Northwest and the Snake River Correctional Institution. More than 35,000 pounds of potatoes were harvested this year. (Baker City Herald photograph by S. John Collins).

By JAYSON JACOBY

Of the Baker City Herald

Inmates at the Powder River Correctional Facility are feasting this fall on the fruits (and vegetables) of their own labors.

Potatoes, corn, tomatoes, zucchini, Hubbard squash, lettuce, carrots, bell peppers.

Thousands of pounds of nutritious produce.

All grown by inmates.

Harvested by inmates.

Then eaten by inmates.

Powder Rivers inmate-tended garden, one of two in the Oregon prison system, not only keeps inmates busy, but it also saves money, said Mary Calloway, who is in charge of inmate work programs at the minimum-security prison.

Calloway said Powder River, which houses 178 inmates, saves an estimated $150 a week by serving inmates the produce they produced rather than buying fruits and vegetables.

Its a very valuable program, Calloway said. Theres quite a bit of use that we get out of it.

She said officials from the Oregon Department of Corrections are talking about tilling up and seeding vacant ground near other state prisons in emulation of Powder River.

Nor are inmates the only ones to benefit from their own green thumbs.

Calloway said the prison recently donated pumpkins to the Seventh-day Adventist Church food bank, in time for jack-o-lantern carving.

The garden at Powder River is one of several projects that inmates in the prisons horticulture program have cultivated over the past few years, said instructor Gary Dielman, who is filling in this fall in that position for Doug Shorey.

In addition to tending the garden and taking a college-level course in horticulture, the 14 inmates in the class also maintain a greenhouse on the prison property, Dielman said.

Inside the climate-controlled building they raise the annual and perennial flowers that brighten the prison property, and also grow herbs and spices that liven up meals.

Those 14 inmates are among the 50 inmates in Powder Rivers award-winning program for men with drug and alcohol problems. Inmates strive to be assigned to the horticulture class, Dielman said.

The attitude of the inmates is very good, Dielman said. Its a good crew.

(The horticulture program) is one of the things they aspire to get into, he said. They have to do some achieving to get that privilege.

And then they have to go get their hands dirty.

The big job this fall was the potato harvest, Dielman said.

Inmates picked 35,000 pounds of spuds over three days, Oct. 10-12. Thats twice as large as last years harvest, Dielman said.

He had intended to put up the bumper crop with only the 14 inmates from the horticulture class, but on the first morning of the harvest the temperature dropped to 20 degrees.

Dielman, fearing the hard frost would damage the potatoes before his small crew could finish the job, asked prison officials for help.

They assigned 20 more inmates to the potato patch, and neither the frost nor a rain storm the next day harmed the potatoes before they were under cover, he said.

Dielman said the inmates also benefited from the expertise of Jan Kerns, whose family grows potatoes on its Baker Valley ranch.

Kerns is a member of the local prison advisory committee, and the recipient of the Oregon Department of Corrections Volunteer of the Year award for her efforts in creating a system to notify local residents when an inmate escapes.

Although the locally grown produce is an ingredient in most meals at the prison, the inmates cant eat all of it fresh, Calloway said.

Most of the rest is frozen or dried for use later, she said. The prison also has shared its bounty with the Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario.