A Fresh Start: Learning To Work and Serve While Serving Time
When James Kennedy looks out on the long rows of tomatoes, squash, corn, okra and beans on two acres of land in Calhoun County, he sees more than just vegetables. He sees freedom.
“I get fresh air, sunshine and am doing something productive out here,” Kennedy said. “I just really enjoy it. I’d rather be out here than sitting in jail.”
Kennedy is an inmate at the Calhoun County Jail in Anniston. While awaiting a trial date, he’s one of a handful of inmates selected to work in the jail garden, raising and harvesting vegetables that end up on plates in the jail cafeteria.
Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson and Chief Deputy Matthew Wade started the garden more than a decade ago. While it’s changed locations a few times, the goal remains the same: to rehabilitate inmates by giving them worthwhile tasks.
“The garden is one way we teach inmates simple skills,” Wade said. “They learn to wake up on time; that when they get to work, they should do as they’re told and work hard. That’s something some of these people didn’t have until now. Hopefully, it will change some of their lives.”
Another benefit of the garden is it helps offset costs of feeding over 400 inmates daily. The state provides $1.75 per inmate per day for food, and the Calhoun County Commission foots the remainder of the grocery bill. The produce can’t be sold to the public, because no one is allowed to profit off inmate labor. Instead, the harvested vegetables are taken back to the jail kitchen.
“This somewhat supplements our food budget at the jail, and that keeps us from spending more taxpayer dollars on food,” said jail administrator Eric Starr. “Now, some of the inmates might say ‘Oh no, not squash again!’ when the harvest starts coming in, but the inmates who work in the garden are proud to know they helped raise and harvest the food served in the jail.”
The jail uses a classification system to select inmates allowed to work on projects in the community, including the garden. They must be classified as minimum security, and background checks and disciplinary records are taken into account. At a county jail, inmates often satisfy their sentences or bond out quickly, so staff at the garden changes almost daily.
Officer John Gordon has been in charge of garden operations since 2015, when it moved to Woodland Park. Without a background in farming or gardening, he’s relied heavily on assistance from local farmers, including Calhoun County Farmers Federation member Doug Trantham.
“I didn’t really know anything about this, so Doug has helped me tremendously,” Gordon said. “He provided a lot of the materials and planted the corn and beans. He lets me do the maintaining, but gives us tips about when to harvest and water. Without Doug, I couldn’t do any of this.”
Trantham started helping with the garden last year when Chief Deputy Wade approached him. For many years, the jail has helped with county livestock shows by providing inmate labor. Trantham said he’s happy to use his agricultural expertise as a way to give back.
“We get to talk to these guys one-on-one out here and show them there are better things to do than getting in trouble all the time,” Trantham said. “And maybe it will help redirect their lives. That’s satisfying to me.”
In the spring, Trantham plows the land and plants the vegetables that require a planter. He stops by at least once a week to talk with the inmates and check on the garden progress. Other farmers and organizations donated seed and plants. The only cost the jail incurred this year was buying an irrigation pump.
But the price of an irrigation pump is minimal compared to the impact the garden is having on the inmates working there.
“It makes me feel like I’m contributing to something,” Kennedy said. “It’s a lot of work, but I feel at ease and like I’m a part of something, and that makes me feel good about myself. That’s something I want to continue and build on.”
By changing the inmates’ minds, jail administrator Starr hopes the garden will grow a better community in Calhoun County.
“A lot of our inmates come through because this is the lifestyle they know; they go home for a few months, and then they’re back in jail,” he said. “But out here in the garden, they learn a different lifestyle. They learn they can be productive, and it stops the revolving door for just a few of them. And if we can do that, then we’re doing something.”
For updates on the garden, follow the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office page on Facebook.