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posted: 7/10/2011 6:00 AM

More than veggies grow by county jail

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By Herb Meeker
(Decatur) Herald & Review

TUSCOLA, Ill. -- There are more than tomatoes and string beans growing near the Douglas County U.S. Department of Agriculture Service Center by Route 36.

Help for planting and weeding the garden comes from the nearby Douglas County Jail. The idea is that the 30- by 50-foot garden plot can yield confidence and pride as well as donations for food to the needy through Douglas County pantries.

Douglas County Sheriff Charlie McGrew is not one to allow inmates to walk out the door unless they've served their time or a court order frees them. But he said he thinks with proper screening of trustees, the garden project could be food for the soul, not just the needy.

"We're trying to make something good out of a bad situation. This offers a lot of benefit to these guys to do something like this," said McGrew, who agreed to allow trustees to offer volunteer help at the community garden established by Steve Nieman, county USDA executive director. This is the second year jail inmates have helped with the garden.

Todd, a trustee in the county jail who is facing release next month, has been offering his free time to the People's Garden project. As a trustee, Todd (he requested his last name not be published as he prepares to seek work after release) has proved he can handle extra duty for the jail kitchen, laundry and general cleaning. But the garden is purely volunteer among qualified jail inmates.

"Once they explained to me it went to the food pantry it gave me a reason to do it," the jail trustee said Tuesday afternoon.

He has been helping with planting the tomato plants and string beans and placing tomato cages. He also pulls weeds, including some duty on weekends.

"I've never had a garden myself. I have borrowed a patch from a friend. I know it takes a lot of dedication to keep a garden going," said the trustee, who is serving an extended jail sentence for an alcohol-related charge.

Niemann said the People's Garden drew 900 pounds of produce last year from various growers with the help of donors of seed, equipment and services. He especially appreciates the jail inmates for coming forward last season, and realizes they have taken pride in their accomplishment.

Todd said he is experiencing a feeling of satisfaction with his efforts, too. He hopes that helps him after he leaves the jail.

"I realize what got me here," Todd said of his struggle with alcohol. "I want to get back to work and build on what's left."

"We've asked him not to come back," McGrew said with a grin.

Niemann said Todd's efforts will be missed. "I really appreciate what he has done here," he said.

But this year's volunteer gardener might check on the harvest near the jail for this season long after he has been freed.

"It will be interesting to see how it turns out," he said.