Ray of hope: New gardening program offers jail inmates relief from tedium of their cells

Jail staff at the Virginia Beach Correctional Center led six inmates out into an open garden this morning to pull weeds.

Most of the men crouched in a row, patiently pulling extra vegetation from the ground. One man sat cross-legged in an aisle, picking at the grass half-heartedly.

All six inmates have mental illnesses, ranging from depression to schizophrenia to bipolar disorder. They are participants in a new program for jail inmates who are struggling with mental illnesses.

The idea is that allowing the them to be outside, even if only for short periods of time, may help them better adapt to their time as jail inmates.

“One of the inmates had been in his cell for 18 months,” Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle said. “A lot of inmates are accustomed to their cell.”

The quarter-acre garden was planted outside the facility at 2501 James Madison Blvd. six years ago. Its produce goes to supplement inmates’ meals and to support local charities, such as the Judeo-Christian Outreach Center’s meals for the homeless, according to Kathy Hieatt, the jail’s public information 0fficer.

Last month, based on an idea from Captain Rocky Holcomb, staff began recruiting inmates with mental illness for twice weekly garden sessions. About 400 of the 1,300 inmates at the center have been diagnosed with mental illness.

Some mentally ill inmates beg the officers to remain inside the jail, Stolle said. But others jump at the chance to enjoy some sunshine and fresh air

Take, for example, inmate Andrew Privott, who struggles with bipolar disorder. He’s always up for gardening when the jail staff recruit inmates.

“I try and get ready in case they need volunteers or there’s someone who can’t go,” Privott said.

This morning, Privott had a migraine. But being outside and working in the garden seemed to help the pain subside, he said.

Privott, who is serving a four-year sentence, suggested that the noise level inside the jail contributed to his headache. He said that being outside provided him with much-needed relief.

“It’s therapeutic,” Privott said. “You’re not thinking about doing time when you’re pulling weeds.”

Another inmate, Brett Starkey, has been in the jail almost two years and has another two years left to serve on his sentence. He said he’s expecting to be moved to a jail in Chesapeake soon, then to another in Norfolk.

Starkey has been diagnosed with depression, so he appreciates the chance to spend time outdoors.

“After being locked up for so long, you look at life with a different perspective,” he said. “You miss things like this.”

The gardening takes his mind off his depression, Starkey said, adding that the work also is motivating him to volunteer at his neighborhood church once his sentence has been served and he’s free again.

Pulling weeds and cleaning the garden offers an aspect of humaneness during an inmate’s jail stay, Stolle said.

“This introduces reality to them again, and I think it’s critically important,” he said.

During the 2014-2015 fiscal year, the jail’s medical staff filled 14,775 prescriptions for psychotropic drugs that serve to alter the perceptions, moods and consciousness of inmates. These drugs were dispensed to 5,913 inmates at a cost of more than $250,000.

The new gardening sessions aren’t mandated by the jail, and they don’t entail any additional expenditures. But Stolle hopes they help inmates understand an important message.

“The reality is this is where they are,” the sheriff said, “but this is what they could be doing.”


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