Maine garden helps inmates prepare to rejoin society

Garden Project is part of the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast

By Abigail Curtis
Bangor Daily News

SWANVILLE, Maine — The 3-acre farm looked ordinary in the early autumn sunshine.

Piles of orange pumpkins by the tractor hinted at Halloween celebrations to come and honeybees lazily dipped and buzzed around the last remaining fall flowers. Several fields were a tangle of dying vines and others were brown, the rich soil already plowed and ready for next spring’s plantings.

What wasn’t ordinary at this farm along the Goose River in Swanville was who was working in the fields and why. The Garden Project is part of the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center in Belfast, and the six men cheerfully working to harvest the final pumpkins and squash a day last week were residents there, having spent months or years behind prison bars. With a year or less to go before the end of their sentence, they have come to the re-entry center to learn how to successfully rejoin the world outside of prisons and jails, and program officials say the work they do in the garden is an important part of this goal.

In the gardens, they work alongside Waldo County Commissioner Bill Shorey, planting, weeding and harvesting. They take ripe red tomatoes, plump ears of corn and mountains of zucchini and summer squash to food pantries, soup kitchens and other nonprofits all over the county, where the bounty grown at the Garden Project helps feed people in need.

“I love it,” said Al Moody, 53, of Searsport, who is finishing up a sentence for assault. “I love to work and love giving back to the community.”

Tim Parker, the low-key corrections officer working with the men that day said that in previous institutions, they were “treated like animals.”

“In old-fashioned corrections, you lock them up and throw away the key,” he said. “I like the new way better. The new approach, it’s more humanizing.”

From revolving door to re-entry center

The 5-year-old center, run by Waldo County and the Volunteers of America, takes inmates from county jails and the Maine Department of Corrections who were not convicted of severely violent crimes or sex offenses. Though it primarily serves men from Waldo and Knox counties, it also takes inmates from four other coastal counties and beyond. It is unique in Maine — the only non-federal re-entry facility for men and the only one closely connected to the Restorative Justice Project of the Midcoast, a Belfast-based nonprofit that aims to change the criminal justice system.

“We’re trying to get away from a place where people who committed crimes are warehoused in jails and prisons. We’re trying to get at the harm to society that crime does and try to do what we can to repair the harm,” Jay Davis, president of the board of the Restorative Justice Project, said Thursday. “I think that the ideas of restorative justice are most clearly known and practiced in Waldo County, but our goal is to make Maine a restorative justice state.”

Officials at the center said the goal is possible and well-worth striving for. According to Jerome Weiner, the Volunteers of America program manager for the midcoast re-entry center, a recent study by the Maine Department of Corrections showed that more than 70 percent of released state prisoners return to prison within of three years. Early numbers from the re-entry center show much lower recidivism rates — about 25 percent, Weiner said.

Before 2009, when the re-entry center was still the Waldo County Jail, it was a very different story, Davis and Weiner said.

“Waldo County was spending a huge amount of money putting the same people in jail over and over again,” Davis said, describing the former system as a revolving door. “Ten years ago in Waldo County, if somebody committed a crime, they went to Waldo County Jail, stayed there as long as their sentence was and then went right back into the community with no effort made to ease their transition back. There was no argument about whether that was a good system or a bad system. That’s just the way the system was.”

Then a couple of things happened. One was that the state started to talk about closing the jail as a money-saving move. The other was that Dick Snyder, a retired theology professor who founded the Restorative Justice Project in Belfast, came to Sheriff Scott Story with an idea to provide community mentors to the inmates. The sheriff liked the idea, which eventually transformed the whole facility. Now, residents there take classes, get mental health treatment, learn about anger management and healthy relationships, and address their addictions. They work with community mentors, spend many hours volunteering for nonprofit agencies and, after they have been there a while, they are allowed to find jobs in the community.

Davis said the shift away from the jail model has been good for the residents and good for the county. Residents are hardly “locked up” but are visible as they work, volunteer and rejoin the community. People from the county are asked to serve as mentors and to trust the men enough to hire them to work at their businesses.

“The community is asked more, and they get so much back,” Davis said. “To me, when the whole restorative justice process works, it definitely involves the community.”

‘Success beyond expectations’

Chris Veysey, 24, of Hartland said last week he is finishing up a sentence for arson and burglary, after having spent the first years at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham. He’s one of the 32 men in the re-entry program right now.

“It’s a lot different. There’s a lot more freedom,” Veysey, a quiet man who left the fields periodically for a quick smoke break, said of the program. “I’ve learned quite a bit.”

Some of what Veysey and the other residents have learned has been in the garden, where they harvested about 25,000 pounds of produce this season. Some of those vegetables went to The Game Loft in Belfast, which counts among its membership some of the most vulnerable people in Waldo County, according to operations director Michael Robertson.

“Every resource we can get is hugely appreciated, especially fresh fruits and vegetables,” he said. “Over the last two years, we’ve gone from being a Pop-Tarts and Kool-Aid place to having fresh fruits and vegetables every day. Everything the re-entry center gives to us, cucumbers, zucchini, corn, gets used. What we don’t use, we send home with the kids to use with their families.”

Shorey, the Waldo County Commissioner who helped start the garden and has volunteered hundreds of hours of his time each year to keep it going, said it has been such a success that the county government spent $100,000 this year to purchase a 65-acre parcel. The land is bigger, drier and more productive than the three-acre parcel the county has been leasing. Shorey expects to greatly increase the harvest without a lot more work. The vegetables also feed residents at the center, which the commissioner estimates has saved about $10,000 annually on its food bill.

“This is really going to be a good venture for us,” he said. “It’s had success beyond my expectations already, and it’s going to be even larger than this when we get done.”

‘Best job in the world’

Not all men in the program succeed, and not all finish. Some people in Waldo County have wondered whether the center encourages more convicted felons to stay in the area after they get out. They are concerned about the potential for increased crime, but Davis believes the opposite is true.

“To say that people from the re-entry center commit crimes when they get out is probably true, but it’s at a much lower rate than the people who used to get let out of jail,” Davis said. “We don’t condone in any way committing crimes — but sometimes, I guess, that happens.”

Vesey said he already has noticed a difference in himself during his time at the re-entry center.

“Before, I wasn’t doing a whole lot of thinking. Before, I didn’t care about people. I was more focused on my addiction than what was around me,” he said. “Now I’m here and working on myself, trying to fix some of the broken relationships. To change, you have to want it in yourself. It took going to prison to realize that, and I’m very motivated not to go back. It’s a big motivation.”

Last year, the men in the program paid off more than $22,000 in fines and restitution, according to the re-entry center. They also pay 20 percent of their wages for room and board to the re-entry center once they start working outside, which added up to more than $27,000 last year. They cook for themselves and can eat all the fresh vegetables they want. It’s all part of getting the residents ready for success in the outside world, and Weiner said it’s working.

“When I see a guy come back to visit, and he’s working and he’s stayed clean and sober and he’s back with his significant partner, he has his children or grandchildren back in his life — he looks good. He smiles. I get a big bear hug,” Weiner said. “That happens just about every single day. I have the best job in the world.”

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