Inmates, administration dig having greenhouse, fields

The fields are projected to produce 80,000 pounds of produce within the next year.

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Inside the greenhouse at the Washington State Penitentiary.

Gray walls, guard towers and patroling armed correctional officers are the first things visitors notice when entering Walla Walla State Penitentiary. But just outside the intimidating walls of the inner-prison complex is a far less imposing structure -- a greenhouse.

Its glass is not bullet-proof, and the building is not surrounded by a barbed wire perimeter. Instead, there is a friendly, master gardener named Doug Tucker, a couple of green-thumbed inmates and over 1,500 tomato plants.

Tucker developed the greenhouse, which should produce 5,000 pounds of tomatoes by the year's end after attending the Master Gardener's program at Washington State University. Although Tucker shied away from revealing his role in the project, while motioning to the verdant array of hanging tomato plants, Penitentiary Superintendent Stephen Sinclair said, "Everything you see here is Doug."

The "everything" Sinclair referred to includes three species of tomatoes that are cultivated almost entirely organically and sustained by an adjustable hanging light system developed by Tucker.

What Sinclair describes as an "heroic" effort by Tucker has not been achieved single-handedly. Tucker works with a 10-man crew. Two of his men work primarily in the greenhouse to "help water and keep everything under control," Tucker said. The rest use tractors, a 1930s plow salvaged from the prison trash heap and their own perspiration to cultivate 18 acres of lettuce, squash and other vegetables that are used to cook nutritious meals in the penitentiary kitchen.

A short and carbon-friendly golf-cart ride from the greenhouse to the vegetable fields shows inmates weeding, planting and watering lettuce and squash, producing 3,000 pounds of produce every week.

Although caked with soil after planting 5,800 plants in five hours under a sweltering sun, the inmates/gardeners were in good spirits -- smiling, joking with prison administrators and answering questions with candor and humor.

"It's work, man. There's no two ways about it," chuckled inmate Jeff Parkhust. "But I'd rather be doing this than not doing nothing, you can bet on that. I've done time both ways and I prefer to be doing this, plus I'm learning a new skill."

"It's kind of a better, funner job than most of them. We got more people trying to get on this job than the rest of them," said Roy Davis, another inmate who says all the workers take so much pride in the job they choose to do it seven days a week, even though they are required to work only five.

"If you start everything from seed, just to see it breaking and going bad, it just drives a person nuts when they got a little self-pride in what they do," Davis said.

The fields, which are projected to produce 80,000 pounds of produce within the next year, have been bolstered by the sustainable composting system implemented by the penitentiary administration. According to Sustainability Chair Richard Howerton, instead of throwing away extra food, kitchen waste is converted into compost and applied to the fields.

This process, according to the Sinclair, has diverted 27 tons of waste from the landfill, creating huge savings, abundant harvests, a cleaner environment and better behaved employees.

"With this project and some other things we're doing, we've knocked 25 cents off a meal, and we're going to save a million dollars by the end (of the two-year cycle)," Howerton said.

According to Sinclair, that's "just getting started. "I think we're at 18 acres, today, on farm production. We hope that down the road we might be able to sustain 100 acres, or more, but it will take time to work up to that."

Omar Ihmoda can be reached at omarihmoda@wwub.com.

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