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Aug 9, 2010 9:21 AM by Sharlee Barriere

Louisiana Prison Nourishes Its Own

DEQUINCY, La. (AP) - Strawberry preserves ... blueberry syrup
... fresh honey ... homegrown tomatoes ... Believe it or not,
that's just a sampling of the usual fare at C. Paul Phelps
Correctional Center in DeQuincy.
But prison officials say the 942 inmates are by no means
pampered or spoiled.
In fact, they spend their days working in the prison's massive
gardens and in the kitchen canning and cooking the food they eat.
From seed to plate, the inmates are responsible for their meals.
Prison officials say the gardening program helps keep food costs
low and inmates satisfied.
"If you read a lot of literature about corrections and prisons,
disturbances commonly are caused by dissatisfaction with meals. You
have to be real careful about food service," said Warden Robert
Henderson.
Inmates, supervised by gun guards, plant and tend to fruit and
vegetables on 32 prison acres year-round.
They work from about 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. with exception of lunch
time and "work calls."
Guards must count inmates when they enter and leave the fields.
They also inventory tools.
The inmates grow a variety of crops, including greens, okra,
corn, squash, tomatoes, potatoes, cabbage, blueberries,
strawberries, onions, watermelon, peppers, figs and peas.
The prison even has its own bees and honey. A pecan orchard has
also been planted, though the trees are still too young to produce.
Cattle graze fields at the prison and are tended to by inmates.
They also help care for the horses that are used on the garden work
details.
Officials said there have even been times when inmates have been
tasked to pick bugs off the plants.
One year, Henderson said, the prison's potato crop was infested
with Colorado speckled beetle and insecticides had no impact on the
bugs.
"They would just go underground," he said. "We came up with
the idea that we would just get all the inmates, let them walk down
the rows with a tin or a bottle and let them put the beetles in
there and we know we can destroy them that way. That was the only
way we were able to raise a crop."
In addition to caring for the plants in the garden, inmates also
seed them in greenhouses.
When crops are harvested, they go directly to the prison kitchen
where inmates blanche them and prepare the so that they can be
preserved.
Lt. Brian Hooper works at the prison and supervises kitchen
operations.
Hooper said sometimes the kitchen has a difficult time keeping
up with the garden's turnout. He said the crop yields were so high
one year that the prison went 18 months without using a canned
vegetable - an $80,000 savings to the prison.
"We process and use everything," he said.
Hooper said there have been times when the prison had an
overabundance of a crop - like greens or onions - and they donated
the overflow to a need in the community.
Last year, the prison had a successful strawberry crop.
"We went almost five to six months off of strawberries that we
preserved and put up. We used no bought jelly or anything like
that. We made it all ourselves," Hooper said.
Hooper said most of the inmates enjoy their work, especially
those in the kitchen. He said the inmates from urban areas always
learn a thing or two.
"I find that the inmates that come here from the country towns,
it's just a way of life for them, but now, the ones that come from
New Orleans and the city, we have to teach them how to shell
peas," he said.
Assistant Warden Jolene Constance said inmates learn skills
through the prison's gardening operation that help them when they
are released. Constance said what makes Phelps unique is that the
prison has inmates who have 10 years or less left to serve.
"We pretty much have a revolving door," she said. "We are
preparing them to go back to the community."
Occasionally, prison officials said, an inmate teaches them a
thing or two about gardening. Milton Anderson is an inmate that
work's in the prison's greenhouses. He seeds plants and takes care
of them until they are ready to be planted in the gardens. Anderson
said he used to work in the citrus fields in Plaquemines Parish and
on golf courses.
He said he enjoys his days spent in the greenhouses.
"No, I don't like it - I love doing it," he said. "Once you
get into it, you get hooked on it. It's something to do you put a
seed in the cup and come back two days later and they are
growing."
Anderson said he likes growing tomatoes best, but he also enjoys
experimenting with his seeding.
"Sometimes I'll just take something to see if it will grow
faster if I do it this way, if I do it that way, just to see how it
is," he said.
Anderson said gardening gives him a sense of pride. He said it's
something he hopes to do when he gets out of prison and returns to
Plaquemines Parish. He said he wants to grow vegetables for his
family there.
"It's producing ... it's doing something," he said.

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