ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Cory Schilling, Minnesota Inmate No. 194695, wasn’t expecting much when he started working on the vegetable garden on the grounds of the Red Wing state prison last spring.
But the tomatoes, beets, greens and pumpkins gave him something good to focus on, and he liked knowing that some of the food he helped grow went to feed hungry families at a local food shelf. Now Schilling says gardening has turned into an “obsession, a healthy one,” and he plans to keep doing it when he is free again.
Gardening plots like the one in Red Wing are likely coming to more Minnesota prisons next spring under a state law that takes effect Wednesday. The statute directs prison authorities to establish gardens “where space and security allows.” Corrections Department spokeswoman Sarah Berg said the agency is considering gardens at minimum- and medium-security prisons, possibly in Faribault and Lino Lakes, in addition to vegetable plots already growing in lower-security facilities in Red Wing, Willow River and Togo.
“It started off as something I was going to do to pass some time and it ended up, like, starting this passion for being of service to people, and I never even expected that,” said Schilling, a 35-year-old from the Waconia area serving six years for felony drunken driving after an earlier conviction for criminal vehicular homicide. “Now I can’t get enough of it.”
Minnesota’s prison gardens fit in with states such as Wisconsin and Oklahoma, where inmates have been gardening for years. In Wisconsin, 28 state prisons and correctional centers have gardens that help feed the inmates, save the state some food money and send produce to local food banks. Oklahoma’s Department of Corrections expanded the plots at several prisons into larger gardens and added a food processing unit to handle extra production. An agency spokesman said the gardening operation is a money-saver.
Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, sponsored the Minnesota law as part of a “tough-love” approach designed to cut state costs and reduce recidivism. The former jail Bible study leader said inmates need opportunities to restore themselves through manual labor, part of a philosophy that also has him advocating the death penalty and chain gangs and castration for sex offenders.
“I’m a firm believer that physical work is much better therapy when you’re having problems than sitting in a room and getting in touch with your feelings,” Gruenhagen said.
Berg said Minnesota’s prison gardens won’t be big enough to have a real effect on food costs, and there is little evidence to back up claims that the programs reduce recidivism. She said state corrections officials see gardening as a positive activity for inmates, reducing idle time and making the prisons safer.
“We have 9,300 offenders that we feed three times every day, so for us to grow anything on a scale that would really impact budgets or food menus is pretty unlikely,” Berg said.
Gruenhagen said he hopes to see more and bigger prison gardens as the program gets established.
“It’s just like planting a seed: If you plant a seed it can grow into something much bigger eventually,” he said.
For Schilling, who hopes to go back to a forestry job near Sauk Centre when he gets out of prison next year, he said gardening gave him a chance to “help pay down the debt” of his offenses. It is bringing back childhood memories of gardening with his grandmother and relying on a food shelf to stay fed.
“There is a common feeling among all the members that we are sitting in prison and still helping the community in positive ways,” he said. “Everyone takes pride in that.”
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