Starke County jail garden adds to skills, health, hope

By James D. Wolf Jr. / Photography By Chris Zibutis | November 18, 2017
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Last year, Starke County Sheriff Bill Dulin and Starke County Jail Warden Phil Cherry began a Jail garden to help inmates not only feed themselves but also gain a feeling of self-worth. Since its start, the Fostering A Recovering Mentality (FARM) program has grown to help the inmates and the community.

Excitement spread among inmates as the pungent aroma of zucchini and onion soup flooded the kitchen of the Starke County Justice Center in Knox, IN, in early summer. The main ingredients were some of the first vegetables harvested this year at the jail.

“It’s a lot of flavor. Most of the stuff we get you have to flavor yourself or it’s bland,” said inmate Shane Morrow, who prepared “institutional food” for four months before the jail garden’s first harvest.

He enthusiastically pointed to fresh onions and purple bell peppers ready for use. “It’s a real treat,” he said. “It actually gives you something to look forward to, even though you’re in jail.”

The fresh food is so popular among inmates, “word spread we’re going 
to have zucchini,” Warden Phil Cherry said.

FARM Therapy

This is the second year inmates have grown food for themselves under the Fostering A Recovering Mentality (FARM) program instituted by Starke County Sheriff Bill Dulin.

Although FARM saves money on food costs, Dulin intended it to enhance the GED and substance abuse programs.

“The days of arresting inmates and throwing them into a cell and forgetting about them are over. You have to rehabilitate them,” said Dulin. “I thought this would be a good way to reduce the tension.”

Starke County jail inmate Robert Manns stands in a field that is part of the jail's FARM program. Manns has worked in the garden, helping produce food for himself, other inmates and food banks and senior centers in the county.

FARM workers are low-level offenders, usually with substance abuse issues, who’ve lost track of what’s important, like family, he said.

No women have participated yet because they usually don’t stay as long, he said. Cherry, whom Dulin credits with building the program, said, “the guys involved in the program get a lot of respect from the guys who aren’t.”

Besides recognition for their work, “they’ll tell you it’s therapeutic to get out there and to see things grow,” Cherry said.

'A Way to Heal'

Inmate Chad Stump, who grew up on a farm, said the program creates the routine of a normal life that he didn’t have before.

“It’s healing for me,” he said. “I think every county should do this. It’s a way to give back to the community. It’s a way to feed the inmates. It’s a way to heal.”

His fellow worker Shaun Cory finds being outside three hours a day relaxing, and he likes watching the plants grow from seeds.

However, “the best part is being treated like a human being,” Cory said, explaining that working in the garden gives him dignity and earns respect from others.

Stump and Cory also experienced physical healing from eating healthier and working in the program. Stump’s weight increased from 140 pounds to 220 pounds while Cory’s went from 145 pounds to 190.

Cory said that before his arrest he ate maybe one meal a day.

“Some of those meals consisted of oatmeal cookies, oatmeal cream pies,” he said. “I feel healthy again. I almost forgot what it felt like.”

Morrow said working in the kitchen with fresh food helped him control his diabetes, and he, like Cory and Stump, plans to continue eating healthy when he gets out.

Giving Back

Starke County Jail inmate Chad Stump stands among the crops he's worked on all spring and summer. He says that working in the FARM program has given him a sense of direction and purpose, but it's also helped him gain weight and become healthier.

The inmates aren’t the only ones benefiting.

In 2016, FARM donated 3,600 pounds of excess produce to nursing homes and food banks, and some inmates know they have family who benefited from that, Dulin said.

The program will give more this year because the garden doubled in size from three quarters of an acre to one and a half acres.

Cherry said they expanded to 259 tomato plants that will yield an estimated 39 pounds each, and the plantings increased to 22 different crops, including rutabagas, jalapeños and okra alongside staples like onions, squash and cucumbers.

“Last year was a learning stage,” said Sheriff Dulin.

Now FARM has chickens, so inmates eat fresh eggs on Sundays. In April the jail added an aquaponics setup to raise tilapia.

Water from the aquaponics farm fertilizes crops, and Cherry hopes to raise enough tilapia next year to feed the inmates, thanks to a 20- by 84-square-foot greenhouse they erected this summer to protect the fish in winter.

The inmates also raise flowers that go to the community, and Dulin plans to let kids pick pumpkins from the field in fall. He’s also looking into selling what inmates raise as wholesale.

Dulin believes it’s too early to measure the effects on inmates, but he and Cherry have people stop them in stores to say they appreciate the program—including former inmates who’ve begun gardening or raising tilapia at home.

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