By Errol Castens
Daily Journal Oxford Bureau
PONTOTOC – Inmates at the Pontotoc County Jail may be paying a debt to society, but they're also helping pay their way, producing all the vegetables needed for an average of 55 inmates.
Behind the jail, Sheriff Leo Mask pointed out a picturesque garden that overlooks the Pontotoc High School baseball field.
“This used to be just like that parking lot over there,” Mask said, pointing to cabbages, potatoes and other spring crops in the red soil. “We had one inmate who did the dozer work to clear it off. We kept cutting it up and adding dirt, and now it's a good garden.” The potatoes, cabbage, lettuce and other spring crops – along with enough plants to promise fresh tomatoes all summer – reflect the investment of work.
During the early and late parts of the gardening season, seven inmates are assigned to fulltime garden work.
“When it's time to pick everything, we'll have everybody out there who's eligible to work outside,” Mask said.
On a recent day, the spring crew assigned full-time to garden work was across town, hoeing its way through eight to 10 acres of field peas, butterbeans and green beans near the Pontotoc County Agri-Center, on land provided by Claude and Dot Hardin.
Later, as fields dry out, they also will work fields of corn and tomatoes – most of which is destined to be preserved for winter usage – at the Pontotoc Ridge/Flatwoods Experiment Station south of town.
Doing work with tangible results motivates some inmate gardeners.
“It's good to get out and do something, get some exercise,” said inmate Ben Williams. “I'm learning from my mistakes. It gives me a lot of time to think.”
Ritchie Payne said he wasn't fond of being in jail, of course, but under the circumstances gardening was enjoyable work.
“This is what we eat, and it's good food,” he said. “My papaw, he had truck patches. Had all the grandkids out there to help.”
Mask said he sees the gardens as an unqualified success. For one thing, it's a plum job for inmates.
“We generally bring something to eat and stay all day instead of going back in. It's pretty country, and these guys like being out here,” he said.
While the Sheriff's Department owns hand tools, a tiller and other essentials for a garden, Mask and Deputy Sheriff William Franklin, who oversees the garden crew, lend personal help to break up the soil each season.
“I've got a tractor, and Mr. Franklin has a tractor, and we use the tractor at the Agri-Center, too,” Mask said. “We bring all three tractors, but the supervisors have said if we need anything else they'll bring it.
With more than 20 acres under cultivation, the jail's walk-in freezer and other storage facilities get heavy use.
“We don't have to buy any vegetables,” he said. “We feed for $1.25 a day. That's cheaper than we can have it catered.”
Pontotoc County is one of only a few Northeast Mississippi counties with such a program. Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson also has a work-exchange agreement with Mississippi State University's Northeast Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Verona that supplies vegetables for jail use.
“They use our county inmates to work, to cultivate, to harvest,” Johnson said. “We get to keep the vegetables.”
As with Pontotoc County, Lee County saves on its food budget with the arrangement.
“It's usually lasted us through the winter,” Johnson said.
Contact Errol Castens at 281-1069 or email@example.com