A patchwork of vegetable gardens grow in between buildings on the grounds of the Maine State Prison in Warren.

WARREN, Maine — The state’s only maximum-security correctional facility wasn’t built with agriculture in mind, but a walk along the Maine State Prison grounds during a hot summer morning would have you fooled.

In between concrete buildings and barbed-wire fences, a patchwork of vegetable gardens are thriving. Newly sprouting onion shoots snake along the exterior walls of housing units, rows of lettuce and kale greens greet inmates walking out of the industries building.

There are no sprawling fields of farmland, so inmates grow vegetables where they can. In all, about 2.5 acres of the Maine State Prison grounds are being used to grow vegetables to feed the prison population, the corrections officers and the community during the growing season.

The prison’s agriculture program, which is run entirely by inmates, is in its third and most ambitious growing season yet. Last year, the prison harvested about 13,500 pounds of produce, with about 10 percent going to the local food pantry in Rockland. This year, the goal is to harvest about 20,000 pounds of produce, though inmates think they’re on track to hit 25,000 pounds.

[Subscribe to our free morning newsletter and get the latest headlines in your inbox]

The idea of incorporating gardening into a prison setting wasn’t an obvious combination to some at the beginning, including Maine State Prison Capt. Ryan Fries, who oversees the program. But in the three years since the program began, Fries said it has only reaped benefits.

“From being very security-minded, it was not something I saw as a necessity in the beginning,” Fries said. “But since then, the effect that it has on the inmate population here, the atmosphere and excitement to get fresh vegetables, I’ve really been pushed into the mindset that yeah, this is a really good project.”

A growing idea

Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty started the program in the summer of 2016, when he was serving as the Maine State Prison warden.

Liberty, who is certified as a master gardener by the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, felt there was more the prisoners could do to feed themselves and give back to the community, while also providing them with a skill to use upon release.

“It allows them to help feed themselves and also allows them to learn a skill,” Liberty said. “It makes great sense.”

Through a partnership with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program, the prison began offering a course that would certify participating inmates as master gardeners. The program teaches the fundamentals of horticulture, including how to compost, fix soil deficiencies and how to make the most of a short growing season.

After gaining that certification, inmates can choose to participate in the agriculture program. There are now 12 inmates in the program who tend to the gardens.

Credit: Ashley L. Conti

The certification and skills learned through the agriculture program are things an inmate can take with them. One inmate working in the gardens on a July morning said when he is released in about five years he hopes to open a small greenhouse, selling small plants and vegetables. The Bangor Daily News is not naming the inmates interviewed for this story to prevent further trauma from being inflicted on their victims.

“I think that gardening systems at all the facilities, even the county jails, would be beneficial to all the inmates,” he said. “It teaches you a skill, it teaches you responsibility and teambuilding skills. I’ve learned so much.”

While tending gardens in a prison setting isn’t necessarily a challenge, Fries said being at a maximum security facility poses numerous obstacles, because inmates can’t have sharp metal objects — which comprise many of the basic tools for gardening.

“An inmate cannot have a shovel here, an inmate cannot have a hoe here, an inmate cannot have a hose here unless they’re watched and supervised,” Fries said. “When I first took over, they were digging rocks up with plastic cups.”

As the program began to grow, Fries said the prison invested in plastic gardening tools such as shovels, trowels, small cultivators and roughly 20 three-gallon watering jugs.

There are also time limitations. Inmates in the program only have about five hours daily to tend the garden when they’re not confined to their pods. If there is a lockdown for security reasons and inmates cannot leave their cells, the gardens might not be tended for a day.

Farming in any setting is hard work, but the inmates say they feel it is one of the better vocational programs offered at the prison. But Fries said the positive effect of having gardens on prison grounds is not just limited to the inmates working in them and having them “takes the temperature of the entire facility down.”

“What would you rather if you were a person who couldn’t do a whole bunch? Walk around the facility and see some marginally growing grass or would you rather see a productive garden?” Fries said. “What would you be more excited about?”

Feeding prisoners and the community

The program costs less than $10,000 to run, according to Fries, for supplies including seeds, manure and tools. But Fries said being able to grow vegetables saves the prison about $20,000 in food costs annually.

During the growing season, the salad bar that inmates and corrections officers use twice a day is nearly entirely made up of produce grown on prison grounds.

“The inmates really enjoy the fact that they get fresh vegetables instead of stuff that gets bagged up in California and gets here three weeks later,” Fries said.

In partnership with the Maine Composting School, the agriculture program has grown to include composting. Food scraps from the three meals a day are now composted on site and used in the gardens, which saves the prison food disposal costs, according to Liberty.

Before the on-site composting, food scraps were being sent out with the rest of the trash, which the prison has to pay to dispose of. Liberty said the prison has saved about $100,000 by composting food scraps.

Among the other plans Liberty has for the Maine Department of Corrections, he hopes to greatly expand the scope of agriculture across the state’s prison system.

Last year, across the system, inmates in the Maine Department of Correction harvested about 250,000 pounds of produce, according to Liberty. A significant portion of that came from the 20 acres of farmland at the Bolduc Correctional Facility near the state prison in Warren.

The minimum security facility has a long history as the state’s prison farm, where inmates nearing release can work at the farm or take part in the work release program. Most of the produce grown at that facility goes back into the prison system for distribution.

At the Mountain View Correctional Center in Charleston, 2.5 acres have been used in recent years for growing vegetables. Through a partnership with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Liberty said the Charleston facility received an additional 2.5 acres this summer to grow and harvest crops.

Through the expansion at Mountain View and the potential for expansion of smaller agriculture programs at the state’s other correctional facilities, Liberty is hoping that his department can harvest about 500,000 pounds of produce next year.

Liberty’s desire to expand the role of agriculture in the department of corrections is motivated both by self-reliance and the reality of food insecurity in the state of Maine, which ranked in 2017 as the seventh most food insecure state in the U.S., with 16 percent of residents and 20 percent of children lacking access to healthy and affordable food.

Under the current level of crop production by the Maine Department of Corrections, what is not used to feed the inmates goes to local food banks or food pantries. As agriculture grows throughout the prison system, Liberty intends for a significant part of the harvest to be given back to the community that needs it.

“I hope a significant part of that will be used to combat food insecurity in the state of Maine,” Liberty said. “No Mainer should go hungry, we have the resources. I think it’s our duty to work and combat that.”