Jason Ventolieri moves some squash and pumpkins so they can be transported to St. John’s in Worcester.
WEST BOYLSTON — Jason Ventolieri had never worked in agriculture before, but on Monday morning, he graced the field outside the Worcester County Jail and House of Corrections picking pumpkins and squash.
As a part of the jail’s organic farming program, Ventolieri now has the skills that are going to help him get back on his feet when his sentence ends in about two weeks.
“I never really used a tape measure, anything like that,” he said. “It gave me work ethic.”
At first it was tough not knowing how to do anything in the field, Ventolieri said, but being outside and seeing nature – like a hawk that flew above him – makes him look forward to work every morning.
With a scary but exciting release coming up soon, Ventolieri said the program is making him ready to take on the world.
“I want to go out there and work,” said the 40-year-old who grew up in Charlestown. “I feel as ready as I’ve ever been.”
Ventolieri said he learned that he can use these new agriculture skills on a job application. And through the program itself, he plans to work for a company co-owned by fellow inmate, Jamie Maddocks, after his release.
The program was abandoned for years, but has been going again for about five years under the leadership of Sheriff Lewis G. Evangelidis.
“Instead of being in jail all day, they get a skill,” he said. “They have a work ethic to begin with.”
Over 13 acres, the crew, with the supervision of David Kalagher, grows a selection of produce from zucchini to squash. This year, they tried green beans and potatoes for the first time.
The inmates who get to spend summer and fall mornings tending to the garden are those who exhibit the best behavior, and often those who are close to ending their sentences.
Together, they collect about 500 pounds of vegetables per day, some of which goes to the jail kitchen, and the rest gets distributed to food pantries and organizations across Worcester County, including St. John’s Church Food for the Poor Program. Annually, they distribute 20,000 pounds of food.
The jail already owned the land and equipment, so the only costs are seed and fertilizer, which run total about $700. Growing vegetables to feed the inmates saves about $20,000 in food costs, according to spokeswoman Kimberly Roy, and also gives them a fresh alternative to canned food.
For the inmates who get to work out in the field, it means more than just an escape from the jail walls. This season, 12 inmates are in the program, which will produce vegetables until mid-October.
“The fresh air, the peace and atmosphere, it’s nice,” said James Gauthier. “I feel like I can prove myself to be a contributing member of society.”
Evangelidis said the program is part of a three-prong approach that the jail uses to make sure inmates will leave with a path that won’t lead them to wind up back behind bars. They make sure the inmates are set up with any services or rehab programs they may need, have a place to live, and are on their way to a new job.
“When you’ve get all those things together… the less likely it is they’re going to come back,” he said. “These are the guys that are on their way. They’ve proven themselves in here.”
Kalagher, who retired in June but has stayed on to oversee the program said the older inmates are often the ones drawn to the opportunity. Working in agriculture involves a lot of patience.
“It’s hard work. It’s 90 degrees sometimes, you have to to stay up with the weeds,” he said.
The garden itself brings the land full-circle. In the 1800s, the acres the jail sits on were a farm. The soil there is naturally good for agriculture.
Fresh food isn’t the only thing blooming on site. The crew has just about finished building a greenhouse that will be dedicated to producing tomatoes, peppers, and flowers. Inmates painted wooden beams inside the greenhouse on Monday, which was mostly constructed with materials that were recycled on site.