Inmates improve themselves, help hungry people in Haverhill and region through gardening

Nathan Forrest, 33, of Salisbury, an Essex County inmate, picks a zucchini.

The manicured rows of vegetables and fruits stretch some six acres, easily visible to those traveling north on Interstate 495.

On one recent day alone, more than 500 pounds of produce was harvested from the massive garden off Marston Street in Lawrence. The size of the garden gives the initial impression it's part of large-scale operation.

But just three county inmates are the driving force behind the sprawling crops, which include more than a dozen fruits and vegetables — potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes, squash, watermelon, pumpkins and more.

Water, patience and pride are their three successful ingredients, the small group of inmates said.

"It just makes me happy I am helping people, feeding families," said Jorge Mejias, who has nearly completed a domestic violence sentence and will be released soon.

"It makes me feel good we are helping society," said Mejias, 40, of Lawrence.

The garden is located at The Correctional Alternative Center, a facility long nicknamed "The Farm." Operated by The Essex County Sheriff's Department, The Farm is often the last stop and a training facility for county inmates, including those who are near the end of their sentences.

Local nonprofits that reap the garden benefits include: The Joyful Ladle, Sacred Hearts Church, Merrivista and the Violence Intervention Program, all of Haverhill; Lazarus House, St. Patrick's Church, Bread & Roses, Neighbors In Need and Pegasus House, all of Lawrence; Our Neighbor's Table of Amesbury; Haven From Hunger and St. John's Church, both of Peabody; Merrimack Valley Food Bank of Lowell; And My Brother's Table of Lynn.

The garden is planted in April, with help from Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen. Harvests run from May though November.

Everything grown in the garden is prepared and cooked for county inmates and donated to local nonprofits, shelters and food banks. Produce totaling about 40,000 pounds is donated to charity each year, said Kathy Lawrence, a senior correctional officer who oversees food preparation.

Sgt. Dennis Laubner, a corrections specialist, oversees the garden with the inmates. He noted that with COVID-19 and many families facing food insecurity due to the pandemic, "We don't want anything to go to waste."

Mejias said he's enjoyed working in the garden and the training he's received.

"It's keeping me out of trouble and I've learned about the plants and the different seeds," he said.

Nathan Forrest, 33, of Salisbury came to The Farm after his fourth conviction for operating under the influence of alcohol. Previously employed as a carpenter, Forrest typically worked 90 hours per week and was used to being busy. His work in the garden has given him a sense of comfort.

"It's peaceful out here," said Forrest, noting he, Mejias and a third inmate who did not want to be identified do all the weeding and picking in the garden. The trio volunteered to work in the garden at the start of the season.

 

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