The Volusia County jail, in cooperation with the Volusia County Extension Service program is in its third year of a partnership that is changing lives.
And the program is “growing.”
Female inmates are tasked with growing lettuce and sweet potatoes on jail grounds in what can only be described as state-of-the-art equipment that rivals the hydroponic system seen at EPCOT’s Living with the Land exhibit. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent.
The extension service, part of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, is dedicated to developing knowledge in agriculture, human and natural resources, and life sciences.
Joe Sewards, an urban horticulture extension agent, is the point person for the project.
“This (lettuce) is much more flavorful than what you find in a grocery store,” Mr. Sewards said. “We train inmates in green industries and best management practices class. They learn all the basics of landscape maintenance, mowing, pruning, fertilizing, equipment maintenance. They get an industry and statewide recognized certificate that is endorsed by the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Department of Environmental Protection and the University of Florida.
“These are the kinds of programs extension agents dream of,” he said. “This is something I can hang my hat on. This is meaningful.”
He added the university just came out with a Florida Friendly Landscaping Certificate, which will be offered at the jail. A hydroponics certificate also is being developed.
Mr. Sewards further stated, “The goal is to reduce recidivism. This goes beyond horticulture. You give them resources, tools they can use when they get out that will help keep them from coming back. It gives a feeling of self-worth to folks that work out here.”
The program helps with the jail's meal program, too.
“Everything that they grow here goes right into the kitchen,” he said. “They get to eat what they planted literally. This is not the end product. The ultimate goal is to become largely self-sufficient. I want to hear people say ‘I got a job; I’m making more than minimum wage.' Here is a ready-made source of labor.”
Will Smith is a master gardener who comes to the jail regularly to help guide the effort. Mark Kastner began the program at the jail and Officer Steve Smith, who will have 20 years’ service in July, oversees the project.
“The female inmates enjoy getting their hands in the dirt, just getting out of the block and getting out in the sun,” Officer Smith said. “It gives them something to do while they are here. They actually eat these products. Some of these lettuces we grow are considered organic and those are three to four dollars a head at the store. We can probably grow them at under 25 cents. We are going to (add a) 100-foot-long greenhouse to ramp up production. In the big picture its still in the infancy stages. The baby steps look like we are stepping in the right direction.
“They are surprised we are entrusting them even going to the mowers,” he said. “We use this as a stepping ground for those that are going to go off the compound. Our goal is to get them on their feet as soon as they get here.”
Staff follow up with inmates at least two months after release to check on their well-being.
The living towers and vertigrow systems are in place, growing bibb lettuce, with the capability of producing 1,400 heads of lettuce at a time. The next system will be an nutrient film technique system. “Big Blue” is another new system made from recycled material from the sheriff’s department training center and other areas. Tomatoes will soon be grown in it. Sweet potatoes are grown in another part of the jail. Different varieties of food are produced year-round. Lavender is used as a natural insect repellent that doesn’t harm the food. Inmates can work on the plants up to five hours at a time. Local purchases are made when possible.
“The Ag Center has been a great partnership with the Volusia County Department of Corrections,” Mr. Sewards said. “It’s a win-win. It gives the inmates purpose, job skills that they take with them when they get released here. It also helps out the Ag Center. You have your professionals out there that love to be a mentor towards the inmates. So, it’s been a wonderful partnership.”
Jail Warden Lawrence Langdon echoed Mr. Sewards' sentiments while also outlining other innovative programs the jail is undertaking, such as a special family reading program.