As farms and gardens throughout the Mid-Willamette Valley gather their end-of-autumn harvest, so do adults in custody at Mill Creek Correctional Facility in South Salem.
The Mill Creek harvest is unique, however, because significant quantities of its produce is used to supplement the institution’s meals; much is shipped to another state correctional facility and much is donated to Oregon’s needy through a partnership with the Marion-Polk Food Share.
One recent morning Michael Marks, an adult in custody at Mill Creek, spent hours picking and loading large bins of acorn squash. “It is awesome that this gives us something productive to do,” he says. “We’re giving back to the community. I think it’s a great program. It helps a lot of people and shows we have something to give.”
Lt. Steve Bennett, Operations Lieutenant at the unfenced Mill Creek minimum custody facility, is proud of the farming the inmates do. “This summer the men grew fresh tomatoes, zucchini, squash, cantaloupe, watermelon, corn, peppers, cucumbers and herbs and more to augment the food served in the kitchen,” he says. “We have fields all around the facility and one plot is dedicated to the Marion-Polk Food Share. But excess from other fields go to the Food Share as well.” Additional produce is also shared with the Oregon Food Bank Network, which distributes statewide.
In 2013, the first year the institution worked with the Food Share, it produced 12,000lbs of food. Last year, it produced 24,000lbs and thus far in 2015 Mill Creek has harvested 32,000lbs of produce.
Matt Dowell has been gardening at Mill Creek all summer, beginning four months ago when he planted tomatoes, corn and pumpkins. “This work is great,” he says. “It’s cool to see what we can do when we all work together. My goal is to take the gardening class next spring, so I can train other people how to do this next year.”
The men are particularly glad about the produce they shared with another institution, Oak Creek Youth Correctional Facility in Albany, which houses young female offenders. The idea for the share began with DOC Release Counselor Sherri Bratton, who works at Mill Creek but whose husband works at the Albany facility. The couple discussed the need and helped facilitate several shipments. This summer Mill Creek has sent 2,400 lbs of food to the young offenders.
“Our incarcerated adults are giving to the youth [the young women at Oak Creek], and it makes them feel good, because they can give back that way,” Bratton says. Gardening and farming “keeps them active and gives them a sense of normalcy,” she adds, which will ultimately benefit all of Oregon, since the men “are eventually all going to be out in the community, after all.”
With a capacity of about 290 men, Mill Creek is not a large institution. To serve time there, you must have four years or less remaining on your sentence and go through a strict screening procedure. It is a desirable place to serve the end of one’s time, Bennett says, “giving the men the opportunity to go into the community as work crews and do other jobs in the community.”
The 2015 harvest is part of a Mill Creek tradition. Because the property has a history as a nearly 2,500-acre homestead in the 1800s, it is well suited to agriculture. In 1929, the institution housed 50 adult male offenders in what was called the Farm Annex of the Oregon State Penitentiary. These men provided all of the milk, eggs, meat, fruit and vegetables for the Oregon State Penitentiary and the State Hospitals.
Abisha Dunivin, VP of Operations for Marion-Polk Food Share, was out working alongside the men the day we visited. “Harvesting squash is undoubtedly hard physical work,” she says. “The reward in participating in hard work that serves the community is a very emotional one for me. There is a true satisfaction in being able to step back at the end of your workday and see that you helped harvest 20,000 lbs of food, which you know will be going to feed your neighbors in need. It is hard to put into words how amazing, yet humbling, that feels.”
Dunivin says that Mill Creek and the Food Share have an excellent relationship. “The staff is always very communicative and accommodating,” she says. “They truly seem to have a personal vested interest in supporting the efforts of the Food Share. DOC has been a wonderful community partner.”
On this, her first summer in the fields, Dunivin has found working with the men to be gratifying. “The experiences I have had have all been very pleasant,” she says. “The men… were hard working and pleasant to spend time with. During our breaks, they shared stories about local migrating birds; we discussed college football and came up with a faster approach for harvesting the squash – which they implemented with tremendous success, after lunch.”
The only real surprise she has had, Dunivin says, is when one of the men asked if she was comfortable working with them. “He said that he never had previous experience with incarceration and would have likely been worried, himself, to be working alongside a ‘prison crew’ as a ‘citizen.’ All of the other men stopped working and looked up, to hear my response. I assured them all that I was perfectly comfortable working alongside them. I heard several of them mumble “good” and “that’s good to hear.” I got a smile and then we were back to work.”
Dunivin sees the collaboration between the men, the Mill Creek institution and the Marion-Polk Food Bank as a win-win for many reasons. First, the adults in custody provide “fresh, local, healthy food to the Food Bank” and also it engages them in an opportunity to serve the community. “Several of them asked where the squash was going,” she says, “in hopes that it might be headed to the communities where their loved ones are. A few of them shared that they had received food boxes in the past, and were proud to be able to give back and assist others who were in need.”
The clear, deep creek the institution is named for runs alongside the facility’s farm acreage. In passing Mill Creek, part of which is protected as a Native American archeological site, Bennett says that food is sourced from here as well. He points to the large blackberry bushes, heaped and growing wild along the banks. “The men also go out and pick these wild blackberries in summer,” he says, “to use for cobblers and so forth.”
Good farm practices are observed, with organic food waste going into tubs for composting and a return to the soil. The men are also growing a giant pumpkin. “Pretty soon it will be hauled to the front of the institution for decoration,” Bennett says.
Damon Stoneburg voices the satisfaction that many of the men feel about their work. “I figure the more I grow and pick out here, the better we can eat at chow hall,” he says. “I’m amazed at how good a fresh vegetable tastes as opposed to what you get at the grocery store. I’m guessing that 20% of what we eat in summer from the gardens. There is a lot of our stuff on the veggie tray, like peppers and really good fresh vegetables. You can definitely tell the difference.”