Rock County jail inmates trade cells for seeds

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Ashley McCallum
Thursday, August 24, 2017

JANESVILLE-- When Donald Stevens was found guilty on charges of burglary and theft for breaking into his uncle's shed, he didn't know he would end up pulling weeds while serving time.

But that became a regular part of his required 85 hours of community service through the Rock County Education and Criminal Addiction Program, Stevens said.

The program is a five-month restorative justice program for inmates at the Rock County Jail to receive schooling and perform community service to prepare for a life away from crime and substance abuse after jail, said Sgt. Jay Williams, program supervisor.

One of the community service opportunities for inmates is tending the program's community garden -- pulling weeds, planting seeds and harvesting vegetables alongside master gardeners, Williams said.

Community members had the chance to attend an open house of the garden and get a tour from the inmates and volunteer gardeners Wednesday.

Stevens said tending the garden is hard work, but he wouldn't mind doing it again once he is out of jail. The most frustrating part is the never ending weeds.

“You can go out here weed all day long and come out tomorrow and find more,” Stevens said.

Because he joined the program, Stevens will get out of jail in November, six months sooner than he would have otherwise, he said.

Those extra six months means more time to be a dad. He's expecting a baby boy in the coming months, Stevens said.

His favorite part of the program is the parenting classes and working toward getting his general education development diploma, Stevens said.

Once he is out of jail, he wants to dive into family life, get his diploma and work in a trade, Stevens said.

Stevens and his fellow inmates work alongside volunteer gardeners who teach them how to plant, harvest and tend to the garden, Williams said.

One of those gardeners, Bob Drew, started volunteering about eight years ago, he said.

Drew, a retired financial advisor, has spent hours in the garden this summer tending to a now 300 pound pumpkin with help from the inmates.

“They're our workforce,” Drew said.

They would not be able to do it without the inmates, who, he said, work harder than most.

His pumpkin may reach 500 pounds by harvest, Drew said. It's the largest piece of produce in the garden by far.

The garden produces fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs, all of which go back to the community by way of food pantries, nonprofit events or community outreach groups, Williams said.

Last year, the inmates contributed 15,000 pounds of produce to the community, Williams said.

Williams said he's surprised other counties haven't adopted programs such as RECAP.

Once inmates are released, RECAP works with community groups, including Community Action in Beloit, to make sure the former inmates have access to housing, jobs, drivers licenses and other resources, Williams said.

“This program is great, but it all ends if we don't follow up,” Williams said.

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