Johnston Correctional inmates grow food for the needy

rstradling@newsobserver.comSeptember 11, 2013 

— More than 17,000 pounds of fresh produce have been donated to soup kitchens and food pantries through the Plant a Row for the Hungry program so far this year from home gardeners, church groups, grade school students – and inmates at Johnston Correctional Institution.

For three years now, convicted felons at the medium-security prison off U.S. 70 outside Smithfield have been among the biggest donors to Plant a Row.

Three years ago, they donated more produce by weight than anyone else, and they’d like nothing more than to do it again this year, says Phil Beaumont, the horticulturist from nearby Johnston Community College who teaches the inmates how to grow flowers, herbs and vegetables from seed.

But the inmates have stiff competition from several Methodist churches in Raleigh, which have embraced the Plant a Row program, too.

“My boys are trying hard not to have them beat us this year,” Beaumont said.

The good-natured competition now heads into the fall, when some of the prison’s heavier crops come in – collards, cabbage, beets and rutabagas. That last one was chosen for its long shelf life and its heft.

“Rutabagas carry some weight,” Beaumont said.

Plant a Row started five years ago as a partnership between the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle and Logan’s Trading Company, a garden shop on the north side of downtown Raleigh where many donors drop off their harvest. The homegrown produce is fresher and better tasting than what the food shuttle usually gets, said program coordinator Lindsay Perry.

“A lot of the produce that we receive has maybe been sitting on the shelf for a while and is donated because it’s passing its expiration,” Perry said. “This is fresh. And it’s grown different. A lot of it is grown organically by hand.”

One of those sets of hands belongs to Adam Moore, who has 18 years to go on a sentence for second-degree murder. Moore, who is 42 and has a tattoo of an eye on the top of his bald head, has been working with Beaumont for 3 1/2 years.

“I love it,” he said. “It gives me something to do instead of being here and doing dead time. And it’s something I can do to give back, something I can brag about to my parents and my children.”

A little trash talk

If the inmates are going to come out on top, they’re going to have to catch Asbury United Methodist Church in North Raleigh.

As of Wednesday, Asbury had donated 4,993 pounds of produce to Plant a Row, according to the running tally on the wall near the checkout counter at Logan’s. That’s 1,000 pounds more than Johnston Correctional, which is in second place.

The church got involved with Plant a Row three years ago, inspired by the impressive garden at Highland United Methodist Church in Raleigh, said coordinator Brenda Roy. Asbury has carved out 44 garden plots, 5 by 20 feet each, on its unused softball field, and leases them to anyone who agrees to donate half of their produce to Plant a Row.

The church also planted vegetables along the first-base line fence and in deep right field and donates all of them to the program, Roy said.

“And that’s what enabled us to bypass the correctional institute,” she said.

Roy, an IBM retiree, says the church growers love to see their numbers go up, although she doubts few if any are aware there’s a contest to see who can donate the most. But she is.

“I’m competitive,” she said.

In a competition to see who can grow the most vegetables for charity, there’s not a lot of trash talk. But Roy does question the utility of growing so many rutabagas.

“I don’t know that Raleigh Rescue Mission can use rutabagas,” she said. “I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

From U.S. 70, the low, brick buildings of Johnston Correctional Institution are barely visible behind the double row of chain-link fences studded with razor wire. Even up close, the full extent of the flower beds, herb gardens and rows of vegetables isn’t apparent until you pass through the prison’s main gate.

It seems like just about any patch of ground is planted in something. Beaumont says he’ll plant “anywhere they’ll let me.”

“We can’t work out there,” he said, gesturing outside the fence. “So we do everything we can in here.”

Beaumont’s students start most of the plants from seed, in two greenhouses. This year, they grew about 1,000 flats of flowers that were sent to 27 other prisons in the state. Their vegetables are also used for the prison’s cooking classes.

The gardens thrive behind the 12-foot-high fences that keep out the most persistent deer, though two years ago a groundhog managed to get in. It feasted on watermelon and cantaloupe before being caught, Beaumont said.

On Tuesday, 18 inmates in Beaumont’s class headed to a vegetable garden next to the prison’s segregation unit. Some grabbed hoes and rakes and worked over a bare patch of ground, getting it ready for planting, while others took flats of small bok choy and michihili, a type of Chinese cabbage, and used string to line up rows.

Travis Creech carried over the first two flats of michihili and showed a couple of other inmates how to scoop a hole in the soft soil with one hand and slip the plant in with the other. As they did, Moore followed with a white bucket filled with water spiked with Miracle-Gro and gave each plant a cupful.

A distraction from prison

Creech, 28, grew up on a farm outside Goldsboro and was sent to prison for manufacturing methamphetamine. He has spent 2 1/2 years with Beaumont.

“It gives me something to do, keeps me out of trouble,” he said. “And at the end of the day, I feel like I’ve done something to help somebody.”

Creech says he will be released in December and plans to go to community college to study horticulture and possibly go into landscaping, plant science or floristry. He says the Plant A Row competition makes the gardening all that much more interesting.

“I’m thinking, ‘What season is it? What else can I plant when I pull this up?’ ” he said, pointing to two dozen rows of rutabagas, some in the shadow of the guard tower.

Like the church members at Asbury, not all of the inmates in Beaumont’s classes at Johnston Correctional Institution are caught up in the Plant a Row competition. Marcus Brown of Durham has finished just a week of the horticulture class after taking a brick masonry class this summer.

Brown is in prison for a second time at the age of 26, first for robbery and now for burglary. He says he’s never had a job except for selling drugs and says he thinks the classes at Johnston Correctional are teaching him intangibles such as discipline and how to set goals and follow through.

He also likes how digging in the dirt takes him away from his everyday life.

“It’s like when you’re here, you’re not in prison,” he said. “It’s like you’re on a little farm, for a couple of hours a day.”

Stradling: 919-829-4739

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