JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD, Wash. - Hidden away in a wood line of evergreens, behind a maze of 12-foot-high security fences with razor wire tops, where few might expect to find any good, lies a garden chocked full of life and color.

The men who tend to it - soldier prisoners under incarceration for violating military law - take deep pride in raising quality fruits and vegetables from its soil.

They await the day when they'll return to the normal world outside their enclosed perimeter, but until then, they find solace in their own personal 22- by 26-foot plots of produce - corn, green beans, peas, Tabasco peppers, cucumbers, squash, zucchini, cabbage, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, watermelon, strawberries, even Swiss chard - many of them good enough to rest in grocery store food stands.

"See?" one of them boasts striding toward his fellow inmates on a recent morning of harvesting, holding high a plump Spanish onion he's just pulled from his garden.

"That's a nice one!" says Charles Kentfield Jr., who, for the past two years, has taken prisoners at the Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash., under his wing to study gardening and farming.

"That's a gem!" he says. "You could eat that, and it would be sweet like an apple."

Kentfield, who works for Clover Park Technical College in Lakewood, Wash., leads a horticulture program in the prison's yard where, each weekday, he teaches and encourages a small group of prisoners to harness their inner green thumb.

The training - nothing like any Army training they've ever had - is just one of a small handful of vocational programs the jail offers, to include carpentry and work in the facility's barber shop. Participants for the horticulture program, however, are carefully selected based on previous offenses and whether they've displayed violence at any point in time.

And the inmates in Kentfield's group, the staff at the facility resounds, have the least disciplinary issues of the nearly 125 service members at the prison.

His instruction, which typically takes place in a greenhouse outside the prison, is part of a yearlong curriculum during which the inmates earn 11 certificates from the college and learn about small farming equipment, diesel engines, landscape construction, nursery management, and plant propagation and identification, among other things agricultural.

They learn to properly sharpen gardening tools, to use chainsaws, tillers and tractors. They even learn a little about business.

The group - currently, there are 16 - comes out to the garden at 8 a.m. and spends at least seven hours with Kentfield.

"I try to make it as real as college can possibly be," said Kentfield, who designed the curriculum with staff from Clover Park. "I expect a lot out of them."

He found out about the job from a friend while working as a heavy equipment mechanic. When he came onboard, he found little more than two empty greenhouses with bare shelves - a dismal sight for any green thumb.

"We didn't have anywhere to call home," he said.

He and his first few students held class in the prison's carpentry shop and in its chapel when there wasn't room in the shop.

"When you're trying to build a team, and you're trying to build it with a team atmosphere, you've got to have your stuff," he said.

So the group set out to make a place of its own. Kentfield taught his students to pour concrete, and they laid out a stone pathway in the houses. They also constructed irrigation systems for the buildings.

"It started to snowball, basically," Kentfield said. "Once we started getting stuff grown in here and really getting their attention, they really enjoy growing plants out here."

Now, two years later, the houses are full - one with desks, chairs, textbooks, work gloves and notebooks, and the other with plants and flowers of all different varieties.

"Is this the best use for a greenhouse?" Kentfield said, admiring the inside of the greenhouse the group uses as a classroom. "No. But it's ours."

Outside are 15 plots where each inmate grows his own produce.

And across the yard, along the fence line, is a seed farm for Northwest prairie plants - an area that Kentfield said more resembles tall, dry, dead grass but is actually used by the Department of Public Works plant throughout training areas and ranges on JBLM in spots where military vehicles and artillery have destroyed the ground.

As part of their most recent undertaking, Kentfield and his students began providing vegetables to the Thurston County Food Bank in downtown Olympia, Wash., in July. So far, they have donated more than 1,500 pounds of food.

Twice each week, the prisoners proudly pull their best vegetables from their plots, wash them off and immediately pile bags full of them onto wheelbarrows. Within two hours, the freshly harvested produce is on the shelves of the local food bank, ready for families to take their pick.

"That's what you did with your local family garden - when you had extra, you loaded it up in the car and took it down to the food bank," said Kentfield, who packs the vegetables into the trunk of his sedan and delivers them personally.

"The first thing they told us is that fresh produce has been their most limiting factor," he continued. "And even the produce that they get a lot of times is stuff that has gone past its expiration date in the grocery store."

But Kentfield's garden, which reflects eight months of growth, is full of towering corn, colorful wild flowers and neat rows of healthy crops. The area is a flourishing testament to the lessons he has taught his students, not only in agriculture, but also in life.

"You have to grow from the seed, to start, to maturity, not just in plants and ideas, but in every aspect of your life," a prisoner who has participated in the program for the past 15 months said in a written statement.

His previous experience with plants was short-lived - at 10, he attempted to grow a geranium, and it died in a week.

When the inmate arrived to the prison more than a year ago, he didn't know what horticulture was and didn't care. But it's horticulture that has given him a second chance in life.

"That is the true gift every student takes away from this program," he said. "A chance at a clean slate, an open ear to listen, and new insights on all of life's problems."

"I try to stress a lot just being a good person - just being good people, and trusting that if you do good things good things will come back to you," said Kentfield, whose biggest concern when inmates prepare for release is ensuring they have strong resumes. "It's simple living. I guess that's the best way to say it. Being a good person, living simply, being happy.

"I want it to be like it is on the outside for them. I want them to be accountable for what goes on and understand what professionalism really is."

Page last updated Tue August 28th, 2012 at 18:51