Virginia Beach Jail Inmates Plant New Garden

May 10, 2010

Under the watchful eye of a sheriff's deputy, Kyle Cuthbertson kneeled in a bright orange jumpsuit and tended the soil on a patch of land next to the Virginia Beach Correctional Center.

If everything goes right, the ¼-acre plot will yield tomatoes, cucumbers and string beans in a few weeks, putting fresh vegetables on the jail's menu.

Sheriff Kenneth Stolle had inmates plant the experimental garden last month. The goal is to save money and provide some fresh produce, like tomatoes for burgers, a luxury not currently offered to inmates. Right now, they eat mostly frozen or canned veggies, Stolle said.

"It's just a win-win," he said. "The citizens of Virginia Beach will save some money and the inmates will get some vegetables."

It costs the city about $4,000 a day to feed the jail's roughly 1,300 inmates. Stolle, who took office Jan. 1, thinks he can do better. If the garden experiment works, he said he plans to expand the project to 2 acres. The jail also has land-use rights for 90 acres in Princess Anne, which could be used to grow even more food, like corn, beans and squash, he said.

A private donor has also given the jail a greenhouse, which Stolle hopes to use to grow produce during the winter.

"My guess is if we farmed the 90 acres, we could grow all the vegetables we needed," he said.

The Hampton Roads Sanitation District provided compost, mulch and fertilizer for the vegetable patch, Stolle said. And the sheriff's office bought seeds with $46 from the jail canteen, which makes money when inmates purchase snacks and hygiene items, he said.

Inmates on the sheriff's Community Work Force tend the garden. They're low-risk offenders selected to do projects in exchange for time off their sentence.

"Actually, we enjoy being in this project because it gives us a chance to come outside and work for the community," said Cuthbertson, 38, who's serving a one-year sentence. "It'll be good once it blossoms to have fresh produce."

John Lizzini, 34, said his one-year sentence will be up before the vegetables are ready to eat, but he may come back to check on them anyway.

"I will not," quipped Martell Lee, 28, whose six-month sentence is almost up. But "that's the good part, we're actually doing something good for the next person."

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