WARREN, Maine — The state’s only maximum-security correctional facility wasn’t built with agriculture in mind, but a walk along the Maine State Prison grounds during a hot summer morning would have you fooled.
In between concrete buildings and barbed-wire fences, a patchwork of vegetable gardens are thriving. Newly sprouting onion shoots snake along the exterior walls of housing units, rows of lettuce and kale greens greet inmates walking out of the industries building.
There are no sprawling fields of farmland, so inmates grow vegetables where they can. In all, about 2.5 acres of the Maine State Prison grounds are being used to grow vegetables to feed the prison population, the corrections officers and the community during the growing season.
The prison’s agriculture program, which is run entirely by inmates, is in its third and most ambitious growing season yet. Last year, the prison harvested about 13,500 pounds of produce, with about 10 percent going to the local food pantry in Rockland. This year, the goal is to harvest about 20,000 pounds of produce, though inmates think they’re on track to hit 25,000 pounds.
The idea of incorporating gardening into a prison setting wasn’t an obvious combination to some at the beginning, including Maine State Prison Capt. Ryan Fries, who oversees the program. But in the three years since the program began, Fries said it has only reaped benefits.
“From being very security-minded, it was not something I saw as a necessity in the beginning,” Fries said. “But since then, the effect that it has on the inmate population here, the atmosphere and excitement to get fresh vegetables, I’ve really been pushed into the mindset that yeah, this is a really good project.”
A growing idea
Maine Department of Corrections Commissioner Randall Liberty started the program in the summer of 2016, when he was serving as the Maine State Prison warden.
Liberty, who is certified as a master gardener by the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, felt there was more the prisoners could do to feed themselves and give back to the community, while also providing them with a skill to use upon release.
“It allows them to help feed themselves and also allows them to learn a skill,” Liberty said. “It makes great sense.”
Through a partnership with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Program, the prison began offering a course that would certify participating inmates as master gardeners. The program teaches the fundamentals of horticulture, including how to compost, fix soil deficiencies and how to make the most of a short growing season.
After gaining that certification, inmates can choose to participate in the agriculture program. There are now 12 inmates in the program who tend to the gardens.