Two rows of knee-high apple trees run parallel to razor wire-topped fences inside the Army jail at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. The young trees grew from unlikely origins seeds from apples in sack lunches handed out to inmates.
Prisoners were inspired to test their green thumbs through a horticulture program at the Armys Northwest Regional Correctional Facility. The lockup is the temporary home of criminal defendants awaiting courts-martial at Lewis-McChord and lower-level inmates serving sentences of fewer than five years.
The horticulture program is a coveted spot for the jails roughly 125 inmates. Seventeen soldiers are enrolled in it today, up from eight when it launched two years ago.
Theyre providing hundreds of pounds of fresh vegetables each week to the Thurston County Food Bank and picking up a potential career path as they prepare to re-enter the civilian world.
Theyre also getting a chance to get their hands dirty while working through some of the problems that brought them to the jail.
Before this course, I sat around and let my conviction and my PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome) eat away at me and drive me into the ground, one inmate wrote in a letter to The News Tribune. Once enrolled into horticulture, my mind cleared up and my options began to open every day.
Today, the jail garden is in full bloom. Its ringed by flowers and densely packed with corn, melons, squash, tomatoes and a bounty of other vegetables. The food bank gained more than 328 pounds of vegetables in the first of two deliveries last week.
One inmate is growing a pumpkin he wants to enter in a contest at the Puyallup Fair. Its an imposing hulk, already about the size of a desk in an elementary school.
Five more rows grow native grasses, making a seedbank to replenish land damaged by artillery rounds and training exercises on the Army base south of Tacoma.
When you finally see your garden or plot and its full potential, you feel very proud, successful and amazed at what nature can provide, another prisoner wrote to The News Tribune.
Built in 1957, the jail lately has held some of the nationally known defendants who have passed through Lewis-McChord for their courts-martial linked to war crimes in Afghanistan. It also houses lower-level offenders convicted of crimes such as drugs and fraud.
Its a step down from the Armys highest security prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., which holds prisoners with longer sentences.
Convicted soldiers and defendants awaiting trials sleep in barracks-style buildings with stacked bunks. Some convicts have earned privileges to leave the prison and run errands for inmates, such as retrieving laundry.
Soldiers awaiting trials are not allowed to participate in the jails work programs. They mostly sit and study their cases. Convicted criminals are required to have a job after their trials, said Maj. Shawn Keller of Lacey, the executive officer for the military police battalion that manages the prison.
Inmates usually start with supervised kitchen duty before moving on to work programs such as barbering, carpentry and horticulture.
The vocational programs keep the prisoners busy and ultimately by keeping the prisoners busy, we dont have many problems, Keller said.
Charles Kentfield Jr., 33, of Olympia started leading the horticulture program two years ago with a few prisoners when he was hired though Clover Park Technical College. He had a humble start with lectures in a greenhouse and space for each participant to have his own garden bed.
The classes are still in the greenhouse, but the garden is much larger. Theyve also improved the quarters with landscaping they designed and concrete theyve poured. Some inmates prefer the heavier labor to toiling in the garden.
Kentfield said his students are unusually disciplined and typically show a positive attitude when they get outdoors. They get to work in the gardens six days a week, and their courses lead to certificates that could help them find work after they complete their sentences.
These guys dont get a lot of choices, he said. Just being in prison, your choices go away. If they come out here, I can give them some choices.
Inmates are forbidden from contacting Kentfield after they leave the prison. Some of his first students have finished their time, and they wanted to keep up on the garden.
One asked Kentfield, Sir, how can I find out how my corn is doing?
Kentfield didnt have an answer, but he was touched by the pride the prisoner took in what he helped grow.
Inmates were not allowed to speak with a reporter from The News Tribune and The Olympian last week. Prisoners were confined to their barracks when the reporter visited for a tour of the garden.
Instead, five soldiers in the horticulture program wrote letters to the newspaper describing what theyve taken from Kentfields classes. The Army redacted their names.
Each prisoner said he enjoys the challenges that gardening poses. Theyre learning to adapt to pests and weather alike.
We consistently see and feel the fruits of our labor, one wrote.
This program has offered many hours of meditative, hard work for me. It allows me to get outside, be creative and use my muscles.
A couple saw their work in the soil as a metaphor for their own growth since their confinement.
Being here, you have to think outside the box and formulate your own ideas and opinions, one wrote. No one is going to tell you the next move to make. You have to grow from seed to start to maturity not just in plants and ideas, but in every aspect of your life.