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Charleston prison garden empowers inmates to find work, feed people in need

Inmates at Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, MO irrigate and water rows of produce inside the restorative justice garden Thursday. Inmates at Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, MO irrigate and water rows of produce inside the restorative justice garden Thursday.

Inmates at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston, MO say gardening programs at the prison are helping to transform their lives as they benefit the community.

Inmate Peter Noll said he's one of the lucky ones. He gets to work in the restorative justice garden at SECC three times a day seven days a week and said it's a stress reliever.

"It's a nice sanctuary. It's fantastic to be out here,” Noll said. "There are guys that I've talked to. I got them out here and helped them out and they said they really like it. They feel better. They ain't so depressed."

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Warden Jason Lewis said the program has transformed from a small patch of fruits and veggies in 2001 into four large gardens that cover four acres of land at the prison.

The expansion was influenced by a new partnership with the Southeast Missouri Food Bank.

Lewis said it will allow the tons of fresh produce they grow to be used to its full potential.

"It was really timely that we got with the food bank because now we are allowed to use their fleet,” Lewis said. “We do not donate individually. We partner, so they can clean the produce, freeze it and get it out to more people. Basically, it eliminates all of the waste in the program."

Inmate Bernard Rhymes Jr. said it's fulfilling to work as a team and make fruits and veggies for a good cause.

"Being able to give back. That is what it all boils down to,” Rhymes said. "You've got kids out there that be starving. Families out there that be starving and then knowing that you've helped them out, it's a good feeling."

Beside filling stomachs, the prison is also piloting a Registered Apprenticeship in Horticulture program which may spread to other state-run facilities.

Lewis said thousands of job openings are not filled in Missouri's agriculture industry and this program can help inmates find meaningful work when they get out.

"We had twelve guys start the program and we will have twelve more come in July,” Lewis said. “Out of those twelve you may have six of them that are going home to St. Louis, and they are highly trained. They are not entry level when they come out. That is the goal and e know that they are committed every day to getting up and working."

Every state prison in Missouri Department of Corrections system at least has a restorative justice garden and Noll recommends that other inmates across the state volunteer.

"It's the best place to be in the whole prison. If you've got to be in prison you need to be in one of these programs," he said.

Warden Lewis also said they plan to install greenhouses at the Southeast Correctional Center in the near future to improve their ability to grow produce year round.

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