Wiping his brow on a hot August day, Leonard Laurincin looked out at row upon row of vegetables and smiled with a look of satisfaction. Beans and broccoli, corn and collard greens, eggplant and Bell peppers made for the perfect summer garden, all grown by inmates at the Westchester County Jail.
For the past four months Laurincin, a Food-PATCH employee, has been teaching inmates at the jail about agriculture. A former agricultural resource officer for the tiny Caribbean island of St. Lucia, Laurincin knows his way around a garden. Starting in the classroom in early spring, the program began with a look at how environment affects garden crops and moved outdoors onto topics such as how to prepare the soil, how to plant seedlings, how to weed the garden and finally how to harvest crops. It’s all part of a new horticultural program – the latest offering in the jail’s vocational/educational curriculum aimed at giving inmates the skills they need to break the cycle of crime that lands many behind bars time and time again.
“Many of these people are in our jails because they have no education, no skills and no knowledge of how to support themselves,” said County Executive Andy Spano. “In the short time that they are here, we try to help them find an alternative to crime by providing them with educational or vocational skills. This new program has the added benefit of allowing them to give back to the community by providing, fresh, nutritious food to the hungry. It has been a great success and we hope to expand the program next year.”
Christina Rohatynskyj, executive director of Food-PATCH, said, “This is probably one of the finest examples of government and non-government people working together to make something very special happen. None of this would have been possible if the county government hadn’t thrown its full cooperation behind this effort.”
Rojatynskyj said Food-PATCH had approached Salvatore Carrera, director of the county’s Office Economic Development and Real Estate, about using county land to grow crops. Carrera approached the County Executive, who thought it was a great idea. Spano had the added idea of using the garden as a vocational program for inmates.
“We knew the County Executive was very interested in nutrition and we have a need to feed hungry people, especially fresh fruits and vegetables. The county also had the need to provide these inmates with useful skills,” said Rojatynskyj. “It was the perfect combination. You can’t get much better than that.”
Correction Commissioner Rocco Pozzi said that the horticulture program was a perfect fit for Corrections’ growing educational/vocational programs. Inmates can pursue their GED or take other educational and life skills classes in cooperation with BOCES as well as vocational programs in heating/air conditioning, tailoring, laundry, electrical, general construction and other trades. More than 360 inmates are enrolled in vocational programs each year.
“The horticultural program is a great addition for us,” said Pozzi. “We try to offer inmates the chance to learn something they can take with them. The fact that they are also giving something back to the community is an added benefit.” Pozzi said that only two inmates were able to participate this year since it was the first year of the program, but that they hoped to expand to 5 or 6 next year.
Plans for the garden began last year. The Department of Correction chose a quarter-acre plot next to its headquarters. The Department of Public Works (DPW) brought in heavy equipment to dig the garden, turn the soil and remove large boulders, and the Department of Environmental Facilities contributed yards and yards of compost to help prepare the soil for crops. DPW piped in water from the garage across the roadway to irrigate the plot and built a fence to protect it from pests. Andrea Kisch, master gardener at Cornell Cooperative Extension, Annie Farrell of Hilltop Hanover Farms and Sue Moga of Muscoot Farms, both county-owned farms, consulted with Food-PATCH on preparing and planting the garden. The seedlings were grown in greenhouses provided by Southern Westchester BOCES. The curriculum for inmates was developed by Laurincin and Dan Brady of Food-PATCH. Inmates, supervised by a correction officer, planted the first cycle of crops in May. By planting three cycles of crops, the garden is expected to produce about 8,000 pounds of produce a year.
Rojatynskyj said while the garden provided only a small part of the more than 1 million pounds of produce distributed annually by Food-PATCH, it represented the larger spirit of giving behind the FoodPatch effort. “We’re not going to save the world, but it’s a start,” she said.