A good crop at the Worcester County Jail

bildeWorcester Telegram & Gazette
By Lee Hammel

WEST BOYLSTON — Here’s the dirt on the Worcester County Jail and House of Correction: The inmates are growing more of their food than ever before.

From practically zero, Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis has expanded the farm operation at the jail to 10 acres this year, with plans for 12 acres next year. All that corn, zucchini and squash is putting smiles on a lot of faces, and also sweat on some of them.

The harvest gives a nice break to inmates who would be eating frozen vegetables otherwise, notes Chief Deputy Sheriff David H. Tuttle. And the $15,000 — at least — in food-cost avoidance is taxpayer- and budget-manager friendly, said Assistant Deputy Jail Superintendent Michael A. Temple.

Plus patrons of local food pantries are getting locally-grown and transported vegetables at a time when drought conditions across the country threaten to dent family wallets.

But the greatest impact of the program is on the dozen or so work release-eligible inmates who travel from the jail to the farm site adjacent to the jail grounds.

It’s a tremendous opportunity for inmates who can’t find a paying work release job in a difficult economy and who are not thrilled with painting town halls as part of the sheriff’s community service program.

Michael Lucier could have been looking at a complete waste of 3-1/2 years of his life after being sentenced following his fourth driving under the influence conviction. But, with assignment to the farm harvest beginning last month, the 38-year-old Royalston resident said he finds meaning “knowing that the harvest is going to go to something good, rather than nothing. It’s getting used.”

“I actually saw it in our dinner last weekend. It’s kind of cool,” he said.

And after he was told some of the food is being donated to charities, Mr. Lucier said he gets “the satisfaction of knowing that stuff that got planted is helping other people who… are less fortunate.”

Bazile Ledgister, a 36-year-old inmate from Boston, whose dreadlocks were wrapped in a knotted T-shirt as he cut weeds, said he loves the farm work. Mr. Ledgister, who is serving 3-1/2 years on credit card and larceny charges, said the program instills a sense of pride and appreciation for hard work.

“This is better than sitting down and being lazy,” he said. Mr. Ledgister, who was on the New England Patriots practice squad 11 years ago, said exercise is important to him.

Planting, weeding and picking the crops “gives a sense of giving back to society. The sheriff says he’s donating some of this. And that’s a big thing for me,” he said.

In addition to working for a railroad — maintenance or laying track — when he gets out of jail, Mr. Ledgister said, he’d like to start a nonprofit organization working with jails to distribute food.

The Worcester County Food Bank in Shrewsbury was thrilled to receive the first two of the jail’s vegetable deliveries, which totaled 375 pounds, according to Executive Director Jean G. McMurray. “We love to receive donations of locally grown fresh vegetables, she said. “Those get distributed right away to our network of pantries.”

“I think it’s wonderful that they’re thinking about how they can help other people.” The jail is among about a dozen area farmers who work with the food bank, which distributed 5.3 million pounds of food in the year ended June 30, Ms. McMurray said.

“We need to make sure that food is coming in all the time, whether it’s one pound or 1,000 pounds,” she said.

Sheriff Evangelidis credited the state Department of Agriculture for providing guidance on the crops this year. The department approved the plans for use of the fields, which are designated for agricultural use.

Mr. Evangelidis inherited a 1.5-acre vegetable plot that inmates tended and, he said, a multi-million dollar operating deficit from his predecessor.

Former Sheriff Guy W. Glodis said maintaining horses, cattle and hens was an expense he could not afford on the tight budget. But he commended Mr. Evangelidis if he is giving inmates the responsibility and satisfaction of working 10 acres of crops.

Assistant Deputy Temple said this year’s operation will produce, based on conservative estimates, between 6,200 and 7,000 ears of corn and 9,000 pounds of zucchini and acorn, butternut and yellow squash for inmate consumption. That would be the vegetable portion of 180 meals for 1,250 inmates, or 225,000 portions.

The farm will produce another 1,500 pounds of vegetables and 1,000 ears of corn for charitable use, he said.

It comes from a pretty exclusive labor force. Jail Sgt. David Kalagher said, “I know there are some people in that (work release) building that wouldn’t want to do this work. This is hard physical work. You’re out in the sun.” He looks for inmates in their 30s or older “because the young kids, they don’t want to be out here.”

Assistant Deputy Temple said, “This is one of those things, if you don’t have a work ethic, this is going to be miserable. You need to have a good work ethic already built into you to work out here and be successful.”

Besides the satisfaction, Mr. Lucier said, the farm program is among the programs that count for “good time.” That helps inmates take 10 days per month off their jail sentences, recently upped by state law from 7-1/2 days, he said

“We save money and at the same time the inmates are getting a sense of self-worth and dignity from being out here putting in the work,” Sheriff Evangelidis said. “It’s a tremendous part of the program.”