In just a few weeks, a garden can change rapidly — fruit can suddenly appear on the vine, tomatoes can turn from green to red and zucchini can grow a foot.
The same is true for the inmates at the Utah County Jail, who spend an average of three weeks working in the seven-acre garden in Spanish Fork.
“They learn that they can grow and that they can produce something with their life,” said Sgt. JoAnn Murphy, who is the director of the Jail Industries program.
The inmates spend hours pulling weeds from the garden while thinking about all the weeds in their own lives: drugs, bad influences and negative thoughts that they need to uproot. Without weeds choking the plants, taking all their water and their sunlight, the plants can grow stronger and bigger.
“That’s what is beautiful about this program,” said Deputy Jeff Bird. “We take them out of their environment and put them in an environment where they learn to cultivate and nurture something. It’s very inspirational.”
All of the inmates in the Jail Industries program have been selected through an application process and met strict requirements. None of them have committed any violent crimes and have already been in the corrections system for at least 30 days. They are housed with each other in a building separate from the jail, where there are a few more privileges. Being accepted into the program means that inmates spend hours working outside rather than being confined to a small, windowless space.
The program focuses on giving back to the community and, at the same time, working to transition the inmates into the workforce and community. Most of the 70 inmates who are currently in the program start working in the seven-acre garden before they are matched with a job in the community.
“Instead of rotting away in there, I wanted a chance to get out and better myself,” said Kuwait Abdalla, who was arrested in April on drug charges.
Every day about 15 of those inmates spend at least 12 hours planting, irrigating and weeding nearly 20 varieties of vegetables which are eaten by inmates and given away to the Utah County Food and Care Coalition and senior centers around Utah Valley. Last year they produced 100,000 pounds of produce.
“We try and teach them that it’s not always about taking,” Murphy said. “It’s also about giving back.”
Several times each week the inmates pile hundreds of pounds of produce into a truck to take to the Food and Care Coalition. Occasionally, they’ve even taken extra time to tour the facility, opening their eyes to the people who are benefiting.
“It really makes us work so much harder to help those on the outside,” Abdalla said.
The program started about seven years ago with a small garden on two and a half acres. Today the seven-acre enclosed plot, which has a panoramic view of the mountains, produces several varieties of potatoes, carrots, beets, cucumbers, squash, corn, peppers, tomatoes and fruit trees.
Occasionally, the inmates have the opportunity to indulge in their product, too, but with only one rule: weeding before eating. Deputies occasionally bring out a bag of tortilla chips and bowl and they make their own salsa overlooking the garden. They deliver fresh zucchini to the kitchen cooks, who whip up a loaf of zucchini bread. And each year they have an end-of-season barbecue with corn and other vegetables.
It’s just one of the perks.
They also have a handful of beehives, which they use to pollinate the garden and to make honey.
“I call it the zen garden,” Murphy said. “There is no calmer or more therapeutic place. There is nothing quite like working in soil.”
Many times the deputies use the garden to talk to the inmates as mentors and give them advice. Their priority is to keep them progressing beyond a criminal mind, using the garden to give them self-confidence and opportunity.
“Most programs try to build a product,” Murphy said. “But we try to build the inmates.”
Murphy is confident that’s the reason that the Utah County Jail Industries program is one of the top in the country.
Each year the program takes on a new project for the garden. This year they built a greenhouse so that the inmates can start planting seeds in early January in order to plant seedlings in the ground in May. One year they built a sign for the entrance of the garden with scraps of different materials.
All of the inmates get excited when they find something growing in the garden. They all know exactly where the biggest watermelon is growing and which bell pepper is sweeter than the other. They’ve set aside vegetables for the Utah County Fair, where they’ve won more than two dozen ribbons over the years.
“I can’t believe this is considered jail,” Abdalla said, wiping his brow of sweat while weeding a row of zucchini.