In 2016, the Joint Regional Correctional Facility began its Vocational Agriculture Program, which allowed six inmates who met all program requirements to learn how to grow their own food and different gardening processes.
It began when a staff sergeant who started a similar program at the Northwest JRCF in Fort Lewis, Wash., relocated to Fort Leavenworth and was asked to do the same.
“He had a farming background, and he really developed (the Northwest program) into something really cool,” said Sgt. Christopher Samson, Vocational Agriculture Program noncommissioned officer in charge.
However, it was unclear whether Fort Leavenworth would see the same success.
“They weren’t sure if it was really going to work or take off,” Samson said.
But despite the initial doubts, what started off as a small program has continued to grow, adding two more gardens and expanding to include 19 inmates as part of the work detail.
Now, the JRCF is growing produce such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, zucchini, watermelon and cantaloupe; ornamental plants such as scented geraniums; and herbs such as thyme and mint.
“We try to have enough variety to keep things interesting,” said John Wahlmeier, Vocational Agriculture Program business manager. “We’ve got a fairly wide variety of stuff, but basically, we’re just here to teach the guys how to grow different things, about soil science, pest control and things like that.
“Because we’re in a prison, we don’t use pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, so everything is grown naturally,” he said. “Even if they don’t go into (agriculture) as a business, being able to grow food for themselves isn’t going to hurt them at any point when they get out. … One of the biggest things is just knowing where your food comes from or how it gets there. No matter what you’re doing for a job, you’re eating three times a day, so knowing what all went into your food is an important thing.”
Parts of the natural gardening technique include using a hydroponic system that uses fish waste to fertilize the plants and using frogs for natural pest control.
“There is a lot involved in it,” Wahlmeier said.
During certain growing periods, inmates are required to focus on the same plant, but the program generally allows them to do some experimentation with the produce, too.
“They can go their own way as far as what they like, what they’re interested in,” Wahlmeier said. “We have books inside they can check out and take their own path.”
Some of the experiments have included hybrid peppers and watermelons, Wahlmeier said.
Growing food to consume is not the only thing the inmates learn.
“We grow some stuff aimed at crafts as well, which keeps us busy for the winter,” Wahlmeier said.
Some of the craft items include birdhouse gourds, dried peppers and ornamental corn used to create decorations that were sold at the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks Sales Store.
Samson said he thinks the agriculture program has a unique benefit for the inmates compared to other work details.
“Just being able to come outside every day and be in the sunlight and work with your hands is a good change of pace from working in the kitchen or the textiles,” Samson said. “They actually have a job where they can go out and do things and eat some of the produce they grow, so, in my mind, …that raises spirits.”
Not only is the program helping the inmates to learn skills before they are released, but it is also helping the local community. After the food is grown and harvested, it is donated to the Leavenworth Mission Food Pantry, 1140 Spruce St., Leavenworth.
“We really want to help the community that we’re right up next to and a part of,” Samson said. “(The Mission) really does a lot for the community as far as providing food, so they just seemed like the best choice.”
Iris Arnold, Leavenworth Mission Community Store/Food Pantry president, said the donations have greatly benefitted the Leavenworth community.
“We have numerous low-income families, veterans and individuals with health issues and disabilities. They have to carefully choose how to spend their limited income, so these folks probably could not afford to buy produce along with other needs,” Arnold said. “The JRCF program is an excellent opportunity for inmates to craft a skill in agriculture. Learning special techniques to grow quality foods is a talent that could give them more options once they seek employment.
“Having this program is truly a gift to so many folks,” she said. “I’m blessed to witness all the smiles when our clients get excited to receive… the free produce.”
Though the JRCF plans to continue to donate produce to the Food Pantry, permission has been granted by the Defense Commissary Agency for the program to sell its produce on post, which is expected to start at the USDB Sales Store later this month. All income will go to non-appropriated funds, which currently funds the program.