ITHACA, N.Y. – By looking at the brick building head on, one wouldn’t expect much to be growing behind the Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, but in a small patch out back, an abundance of fruits and vegetables grow in a fenced-in community garden.

Sheriff Ken Lansing said the project began in 2014, when he was inspired by work at a local rehab center.

“I’ve worked with the Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services (CARS) for several years and I borrowed the idea from them,” he said.

After Tompkins County Jail put in a seven-bed extension on Warren Rd. in 2016, garden development was put to a momentary halt for a year, but has resumed for the season this summer.

Officer Nathan Bowles, who is in charge of the inmate garden initiative, said this year’s garden is packed with herbs, hot peppers, tomatoes lettuce, strawberries, beans cucumbers, radishes, squash and other fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables are beginning to come in for the summer season.

He motions to two inmates assembling something on the ground. “They’re putting up strings for the peas right now,” he said. “The strawberries are also coming in, we’ve been snacking on those today.”

While there were only two men working on Wednesday, Bowles said on any given day, he tries to have four or five inmates working in the garden. Inmates are granted permission to work outside in the garden depending on behavior and the seriousness of their crimes, Bowles explained.

“The money made from inmate commissary accounts helps to fund projects like this,” said Captain Ray Bunce, head administrator of the jail, noting that the garden is not a state-funded project.

Lansing recalled when the project first kicked off, the first day inmates began working in the garden was one of the hottest days of the summer.

Officer Nathan Bowles oversees the garden program at Tompkins County Jail

“I remember apologizing because it was so hot and one guy, who had previously worked in landscaping, said it was better than being inside,” Lansing said. “That’s been the general consensus over the years, it’s just better to be out here.”

Bowles said that he expected this year would be one of the most successful summers for the garden, hoping to have inmates out gardening every day.

“We take it right inside and use it in the kitchen,” Bowles said. “Last year we ended up with a couple wheelbarrows full of tomatoes and they made sauce for spaghetti. It’s not a big enough garden to sustain the whole jail for the whole summer, but it is a substitute to get a little more healthy food once in awhile.”

Featured image: Inmates at Tompkins County Jail assemble growing mechanisms for peas. All photos by Alyvia Covert/Ithaca Voice

Alyvia Covert

Alyvia is a Crime Reporter with The Ithaca Voice. She graduated from Ithaca College with a degree in Journalism and Photography.