Hidden behind the buildings of the Bonner County Sheriff’s Office in Sandpoint is a sight one wouldn’t expect to see on jail grounds. A beautiful garden of three-quarters of an acre.
Tended to from spring until the fall freeze by inmates at Bonner County Jail, the garden provides food to area food banks and senior centers. But it does much more than feed the county’s less fortunate; it feeds the spirits of those who are responsible for its success.
Sgt. Bob Van Buren oversees the Inmate Labor Program. He said working in the garden has a positive effect on the men’s attitudes.
“Once they’re out here a bit they take ownership,” Van Buren said. “They take a lot of pride in it.”
The garden first began in the 1990s when Sheriff Chip Roos was in command. Back then it was a small garden used to supplement the jail kitchen.
The program waned, but was started up again under Sheriff Elaine Savage and has continued to grow over the past few years. Now Sheriff Daryl Wheeler has assured Van Buren that in spite of budget cuts, the garden will remain. And that’s a good thing.
“I’d go down fighting,” said Van Buren, obviously proud of the work his crew has accomplished.
The garden includes beets, zucchini, squash, pumpkins, potatoes, turnips, tomatoes and corn, all of which are distributed to food banks throughout the county.
Some of the men have never spent any time gardening and learn from one another.
“They learn a lot of responsibility,” said Van Buren, whose role is purely supervisory. “They make all the decisions and are very polite. The ones I have to police don’t last.”
Their work has earned the inmates three blue ribbons in the past two years at the Bonner County Fair.
As of late August, they had harvested more than 4,600 pounds of produce and expect to exceed last year’s total of 7,566 pounds.
“It’s great for the community, and it is good for us,” said inmate Robert Kraly who has worked in the garden for two months. “It gives us a feeling of accomplishment watching it grow.”
Josh Russell has worked in the garden since April. With no experience, he began by tilling the garden. Now the newcomers look to him for guidance.
“It makes me feel better that we are helping the community,” Russell said.
Perhaps the real reward comes when the inmates accompany Van Buren on the food deliveries.
“It’s good for those in the community to see us doing something good instead of getting into trouble,” said inmate Josh Freiburger. “I like seeing the smile on people’s faces when we deliver the food.”
But the Inmate Labor Program is not limited to work in the garden. Inmates have helped remodel the courthouse; performed construction projects at the former Federal Building; worked at the Priest River substation; and worked at the county shop. In the winter they also shovel snow for the county and area seniors.
For many it is a chance to also learn a new skill such as carpentry or vehicle repair.
“It shows them that they can work in society,” Undersheriff Bob Bussey said.
According to Bussey, the inmates are assigned work based on behavior, attitude and their classification as a prisoner. Over the past couple of years, the total savings to the county due to work performed by inmates, excluding the salary for the supervisor, totals $394,709. “And that is a conservative estimate,” Bussey said.
He said the program participants are not violent offenders and are well-supervised.
Bussey said the program would not be as successful as it is without Van Buren. But there have been others who have contributed as well, including the Bonner County Extension Office and the Master Gardeners Program.
“It’s been a very good program,” Bussey said. “A community project.”