By Polly Keary, Editor
Inmates at the Monroe Correctional Center, along with volunteer Art King, have given a new meaning to "raised beds."
They donated plants from the prison greenhouse to Regency Health Care Center in Monroe, along with hard plastic garden boxes, actually made of recycled prison beds. The best thing about the planter beds? They are elevated to table height to allow people in wheelchairs to garden, an activity that is not otherwise an option for many wheelchair-bound people.
The idea was the brainchild of retired 30-year correctional officer Art King, who has been an ardent supporter of agricultural programs at the prison.
"He asked if it was possible to build some garden tables for Regency Care Center, specifically to accommodate wheelchairs," said Susan Biller, public information officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex. "Staff were excited about the idea and began working out the details in accomplishing this charitable request."
Two inmates, Nick Hacheney and Charles Bell, got to work making three table-high raised beds out of recycled materials, including old hard plastic bed frames.
The prison also donated a selection of plants from the greenhouse, including beets, broccoli, tomatoes and lettuce.
A combination of community volunteers and businesses, including Ace Hardware in Sultan and Jeff Cofer of Wagley Creek Automotive in Sultan donated potting soil and delivered it, along with the plants and the raised beds, on Wednesday, May 22.
The design of the raised beds donated to Regency Care Center turned out better than even King hoped, he said.
"These can be used by anybody," he said. "You have to remember that these people came through the Depression, and grew up gardening, and they can still enjoy it."
The donation is an offshoot of a much larger horticulture program at the prison.
In 2008, the state initiated a sustainability program at all of Washington's prisons.
"It got really big in 2009 and 2010," said Donna Simpson, who oversees the program.
By composting, the prison successfully reduced its food waste by more than 50 percent, and saved a lot of money on landfill costs.
King was deeply involved in the sustainability project, pioneering a program to use compost to create a vermiculture program, which involved using the same recycled hard plastic bed frames to create worm bins that ultimately grew to hold more than 5 million worms. The resulting natural fertilizers were used in the gardens and greenhouse, and one day, King hoped to see unused prison land under crops.
It would save a great deal of money, and would also be beneficial to inmates, he believed.
The project was severely set back after a Monroe Correctional Officer was killed by an inmate in January of 2011. Most inmate programs were put on hiatus while the prison conducted extensive reviews of its safety and other policies.
But in 2012, the greenhouses and gardens contributed a good deal of produce to the prison kitchens.
In all, the inmates grew more than 13,000 pounds of food, including corn, cabbage, cucumbers, green beans, strawberries, zucchini and lettuce, reducing the produce budget by $3,285.
During the most productive months, the gardens provided 40 percent of the vegetables at the minimum security unit.
And this year, the prison partnered with the city of Monroe to provide 2,200 flower plants for the city's planters, and in the future, the greenhouses will contribute flowers to the annual Monroe High School FFA plant sale, as well.
This year, between 10 and 15 offenders work in the program in five of the prison's units.
The cost of the horticulture program is very low, and the inmates help, said King.
"They are very resourceful," he said. "They get their families to donate stuff, mostly seeds."
Staff sometimes give seeds, too.
The inmates really like the program, said Simpson.
"They like to get out and work with their hands and see the results," she said. "Last year they were physically picking up slugs and dumping them in the garbage so they wouldn't attack the tomatoes. It was called 'slug patrol.'"
"It just makes good sense," said King. "In the prison, there is the biggest workforce in the world and this teaches people to be responsible for what they do. There's no reason in the world why inmates shouldn't grow some kind of vegetable to eat. To me, every inch of ground up there should be planted."
The biggest challenge to the growth of inmate agriculture is supervision, said Biller.
"One of the hardest things is to provide the supervision," she said.
Simpson is reaching out to other prisons that have large garden programs, such as Walla Walla, to see how they facilitate them, she said.
Volunteers can help provide supervision.
"MCC is always on the lookout for additional volunteers in support of these programs," she said. "If you would like more information on volunteer opportunities, please contact Marjorie Petersen, MCC Community Partnership Programs, at (360) 794-2627.
King said that growing things is beneficial to everyone, whether senior citizen, volunteer, or offender.
"Everyone knows when you plant a seed, you are going to want to nurture it," he said. "That's true for everyone. It's true in life."