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Jail garden gives inmates chance to cultivate success

Beginning gardener Shayne Nelson welcomed the strong breeze and warm sunshine that might annoy others while he helped Bill Atyeo connect a water system at the Pennington County Jail garden in Box Elder.

"It's always a nice day when you can be outside," the Minnesota man said. "It gives you a sense of freedom."

Atyeo and Nelson gave no hint that one is a guard and the other an inmate serving a 49-day sentence for marijuana possession. Only Nelson's jail-issued pink t-shirt and socks and green trustee pants hint at his prisoner status.

A trustee at the jail, Nelson, 25, has worked in the garden since the project started in late May.

The project is a collaborative effort, inspired by the success that similar gardening programs have had in other parts of the country, Pennington County Sheriff Kevin Thom said.

"We started talking about this last year," Thom said.

The county is leasing a plot across from the Box Elder City Hall for the garden. The City of Box Elder provides the water. Compost was donated by the City of Rapid City.

Mary Roduner of Rapid City, South Dakota State University Extension commercial horticulture field specialist and master gardener, provided expert guidance.

Atyeo, 67, is a retired/part-time corrections officer for Pennington County. An experienced gardener and one-time farmer, he had the skills necessary to work on the project, Thom said.

The inmates have been good to work with, Atyeo said. So far, there have been no discipline problems. The men seem to enjoy the work.

"I couldn't ask for better help," he said. "All I do is tell them what needs to be done and they get to work."

The Box Elder garden spans about two acres, but only about a third of it is under cultivation this year. New seedlings are popping up in orderly beds measuring 20 feet wide by 120 feet long.

Working in the garden gives the inmates a chance to be outside and physically active. By sharing their produce with the community, they also know the satisfaction of giving back, Thom said.

Any vegetables produced this summer will be donated to the Cornerstone Rescue Mission's projects or Working Against Violence Inc.

Nelson has slept better since volunteering to work in the garden.

"I don't spend all night reading books," Nelson said. "It's better than working in the laundry or the kitchen."

He also likes the idea of sharing the bounty with the community and eventually with other jail inmates.

As the garden continues to expand, it should provide enough vegetables to supply some fresh produce for the jail's kitchen, Thom said. That could be as soon as next year.

Inmates who qualify for trustee status work in several settings in the community. The Humane Society of the Black Hills, Central States Fair Grounds and CornerStone Rescue Mission often use trustee labor for various tasks.

As the garden grows in the coming years, Thom expects that somewhere between one and six inmates could work with Atyeo on any given day. Inmates who qualify for trustee status are low-level, non-violent offenders.

Thom estimates it cost about $5,000 to get the garden up and running.

A smaller version of the inmate garden is flourishing in a raised bed at the Western South Dakota Juvenile Services Center where juvenile offenders are learning the rudiments of gardening under Roduner's guidance.

Roduner is passionate about gardening, said JSC Commander Joe Guttierez. And, she's passing that enthusiasm on to the youth.

"They get to go outside and it's something different," Guttierez said. "Some are very interested in making a garden."

It's all so fun to watch things grow, he said. The young people involved are learning to take care of the watering and the weeding chores.

"It's pretty exciting to have something like this at JSC," Guttierez said.





Contact Andrea J. Cook at 394-8423 or

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