HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) - On summer evenings when Kevin Gunby works in the Garden for Good, he’s overcome with a sense of what freedom might feel like.
“This is the next best thing to being out,” said Gunby, who has spent the past 15 years in prison and must serve another 10 before he is eligible for parole.
The first 10 years of his incarceration at Hutchinson Correctional Facility felt pretty mundane.
Then he became a gardener.
“Now I feel I am serving a higher purpose,” Gunby said. Because of the program, he is able to do for others. Over a three-year period, the inmates donated 22,000 pounds of vegetables to those in need in the community.
But along with helping to feed the hungry, Gunby relishes the peace and quiet. He enjoys hearing chirping birds and watching the occasional line of wild turkeys walk outside the tall prison fence topped with razor wire. The fence keeps Gunby confined and the turkeys free.
This is the sixth summer members of the Garden for Good have been producing vegetables on 1.5 acres, The Hutchinson News (https://bit.ly/2uvpwnO ) reported. They have formed a nonprofit organization and raise money by selling vegetables to inmates and staff. All proceeds are returned to the program for the next year so they can purchase seeds, soil and pots for starting the seeds in the prison greenhouse the following spring.
About 90 percent of what they grow is donated to the community.
“Last year we donated 6,400 pounds to the Soup Kitchen and around town. Our main benefactor has been the Soup Kitchen,” said Gunby, who is serving as the president of the garden this year.
The gardeners have been convicted of crimes including first-degree murder, robbery and kidnapping. But they are now housed in the medium-security East Unit. In order to participate in the Garden for Good, the inmates must be in one of three charitable/self-help organizations within the prison - Genesis Outreach, Incarcerated Veterans or Reaching out Within.
They also must go through Kansas State University’s Master Gardeners training program. This is the only master gardener program in a Kansas state prison, according to Ward Upham, the state master gardener coordinator.
The Garden for Good sits in a far corner of the prison. It was a barren patch of earth before 2011 when the first seeds were planted. Thanks to the interest of a handful of prisoners and then-Deputy Warden Berry Larson and her husband, Rich Larson, a master gardener, the program was launched.
From the beginning, Rich Larson and Pam Paulsen, horticulture agent with K-State Research and Extension in Reno County, have been covering the same topics covered in the master gardening classes outside the prison. The curriculum includes basic botany, integrated pest management, plant propagation and square-foot gardening. From February through November, they meet every Wednesday night for an hour and half.
According to Gary Robbins, one of the inmates who helped start the program from the inside, it was the desire for fresh vegetables that got them started. But when they realized what they could for others with the space, they became even more passionate about gardening.
Now a free man, Robbins said the Garden for Good and the friendships forged while gardening are the only things he misses from his time in prison.
“It gave my life purpose to help others,” Robbins said.
He continues as a master gardener, helping at their booth at the farmers market. His dream is to have enough land to grow food to sell at the farmers market and donate. For now, all he can do is container gardening.
“I might have a place next year,” said Robbins, who has a full-time job. “I am not giving up on that dream.”
On a recent morning, some members of the Garden for Good gave a tour to several members of the Reno County Master Gardeners. Along with the giant patches of corn, peppers, tomatoes, squash and zucchini, they showed off the weed-free test plots they are growing for Kansas State University.
This year, 32 inmates are participating; nine are new students of the program. The rest are Master Gardeners.
Andrew Henderson was a city boy who had never gardened prior to getting involved with the program. Now he is one of two inmates paid to work full time in the garden. He takes pride in his work.
“This is a community of people who hold you accountable,” Henderson said.
Rudy Anderson was commiserating with the visitors about rabbits eating their crops. Even with security fences, rabbits burrow their way inside.
Growing up, Anderson didn’t take an interest in eating vegetables or gardening. But now in prison, he wants to occupy his time with positive things.
“The guys just starting out, who have never grown anything, have a little interest,” said Paulsen. “They get impatient, but they begin to see the results of what they are doing. Then when they see what the food they donate does to help others, they are really excited.”
Along with the big plots, each gardener is given a 10-foot-by-14-foot personal plot where they can grow whatever they want.
This is where their personalities come through, Paulsen said.
“It’s fun to see what all they do,” she said
One gardener, who plans to leave prison next year, was experimenting with a square-foot garden because he knows he won’t have much space wherever he will be living. He even put in a birdhouse and planted a hummingbird mix to attract the tiny birds.
Another man went a little crazy with the zinnia seeds and his plot was filled with a riot of color.
When visitors come to see them in prison, the gardeners send them home with vegetables from their plots
“I sent Mom home with cabbages,” said Anderson, who only has one very big head left in his plot.
Last year, he entered his jalapeno peppers in the Kansas State Fair. He placed second.
“Now that’s something to be proud of,” Anderson said.
Information from: The Hutchinson (Kan.) News, https://www.hutchnews.com
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