Prisoners Selling Produce: Salt Lake County Jail's Garden Program

Each summer Pioneer park is filled with dozens of farmers, bakers and artists selling their goods at the downtown farmers market. This summer, one group of growers is new to the trade; that’s because they’re inmates, participating in the Salt Lake County Jail’s garden program.

“I am on a probation violation for distribution of methamphetamines and possession of a firearm by a restricted person,” says 33-year-old Matt Johanson. He's  in the middle of serving a one year sentence at the Salt lake County Jail.

But instead of paying for his crime by sitting inside the jail, Johanson is one of 15 inmates participating in jail horticulture program: “We wake up around 7:30, go out there pull weeds for about the first hour, then go around and either transplant plants from the greenhouse into bigger pots or go around and compost manure. We also pick dead flowers off certain flowers.”

That work takes place six days a week. But on Saturday mornings, the community is invited to enjoy the fruits of their labor when the inmates, along with some staff from the jail come to sell at the Downtown Farmers Market.

Sgt. Cammi Skogg says the jails horticulture program began in 2009: “We started small with berries, just learning had to be done. We brought in a couple of beehives.”

Since then program has blossomed into what it is today, a 1.5 acre garden on the side of the jail that produces 85 different varieties of crops every year. 

The program is doing more than just putting the inmates in the garden. It is also putting them back in the classroom and giving them skills they will be able to put to use when their sentences are up.

Katie Wagner, Extension Horticulture faculty for Utah State University Extension, teaches a course called "Excellence in Gardening" and says the inmates learn everything from soil science to jobs that are available in the gardening business:

“It’s not for credit, but they’re able to put it on their resume as education they received that was administered through Utah State University. Hopefully if they’re out looking for a job in the green industry that a potential employer might see that and see that these guys have some really good experience and might be interested in hiring them on.”

22-year-old Chase Martin, serving a sentence for a parole violation, says going through the horticulture program has re-introduced him to the value of holding down a job:  “Before I got into this program it had probably been over a year since I had held down a steady job because I was just out there selling drugs and making the fast money.”

Now he says his work ethic has improved as well as his attitude, "I'm not in the jail all day surrounded by 64 other dudes. I get outside, get fresh air, get sun. It gets me back to wanting work."

The downtown market is the largest selling place for the inmates, but they also set up stands outside the sheriff's office and other county buildings periodically throughout the season. All the money brought in is used for jail programs.