BY JOHN-HENRY DOUCETTE
COURTHOUSE — The sheriff’s office in June began Operation Green Thumb, a program that aims to improve the wellbeing of inmates with mental health issues through periods of work in a garden located outside the jail.
About 400 of 1,300 inmates in the city jail have diagnosed mental illnesses, according to the sheriff’s office. Sheriff Ken Stolle said the program does more than let inmates have time outside.
“It shows them where they can be on the outside,” he said during an interview on July 12, when the office invited reporters to the garden.
He said the effort helps the health and welfare of inmates. Some food is used within the jail. Other food is donated to charities. Additionally, the program is low cost, since it uses existing land and seeds are paid through the canteen funds, which benefit inmates.
Sheriff’s Office Capt. Rocky Holcomb started the program to help with mental health issues. “It’s therapeutic to give the inmates something to do,” he said. “They’d rather be out here than in there.”
Horticultural therapy can help people work independently and with socialization, among other things, in specially designed gardens, according to the American Horticultural Therapy Association. Such therapy generally is administered by professionals with specialized training, according to the organization.
The benefits of jailhouse gardens and horticulture programs have been recognized around the country and existed for years at some facilities.
The garden near the Virginia Beach jail was started for inmates in 2010 at the sheriff’s direction, Holcomb said. “Sheriff Stolle came out and said, ‘Let’s put a garden out there,’” he said. “The next day, we were digging.”
Inmate trustees who are not from the mental health wing at the jail work in another garden off Elbow Road, too, Stolle said.
The garden near the jail is about a quarter of an acre. Between three and six inmates from the mental health wing work in it at a time under close supervision. The inmates participate voluntarily, and they must be stable on their medication and deemed not to pose a threat.
On the day reporters watched inmates work, Darren Lambert, 44, of Moyock, N.C., was at the end of a row. He weeded.
“This is great,” he said. “I love getting out here. I get out of the cell for a little while.”
Lambert said he had been in jail since mid-June. “I’d be out here every day if they’d let me,” he said.
Andrew Privott of Virginia Beach said his time in the garden was a good thing.
“It lets me sweat,” he said. “It lets me think other things – looking at four walls all day, you know what I’m saying?”
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