I want to tell you about my partner. We call him Bigum. He's 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs hundreds of pounds. He's fat, but he's as healthy as a horse. That's probably because he is one!
I ride around on him all day long. It's every Texas boy's dream. I get paid to ride a horse! Of course, 1 have to do a few other things as well, like supervise prisoners. Oh, and 1 am a correctional officer for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) at the Michael Unit, just outside of Palestine, Texas.
When I am seated high in the saddle, I'm a good nine feet above the ground. It's not exactly a bird's eye view, but it allows me to appreciate the vastness of what I see before me. And it's not just men in white suits weeding and picking vegetables. It's not crops growing in neat rows. It's hope. It's progress.
I'm sure that when you think of prisons, you don't think of crops, ingenuity, progress and hope. You probably think of bars, prisoners and maybe that guy you saw on the news the other night, but when was the last time you noticed what actually goes on in a prison? For that matter, when was the last time you even thought about it?
You see, prisons are places of confinement where we send law breakers and, for the most part, we never give them a second thought until, for all the wrong reasons, we hear about them on the news. Once an incarcerated individual has done their time, they go home, and if they haven't gotten a better education, learned a skill or otherwise addressed their addictions, they are more than likely headed back to prison.
This is a complex issue. As a correctional officer, part of my job is to reintegrate incarcerated adults back into society. That looks very different depending on the person. After all, prisoners are people and people have different interests and skills. The skill set we were trying to share with these incarcerated individuals was gardening. With this in mind, we started to look at gardening a bit differently, and because of that we have sparked change within the prison system. And it is all because of a simple thing that many of us take for granted--a salad. [right arrow]
A salad of possibilities
It started back in 2007, when a kitchen captain in the TDCJ's Dalhart Unit wanted to add some flavor to the meals he was preparing, so he decided to plant a small herb garden on prison property. The unit was being audited at the time and the auditor smelled something good in the prison kitchen. There are plenty of conversations in prison, but people do not normally talk about how tasty the food is or how good it smells.
As with any audit, there can be some anxiety. This is especially true when the auditor discovers something new, something he's never experienced before. Our beans smelled a heck of a lot better than anyone else's. It was explained to him that the smell was the result of the herb garden the kitchen captain had recently planted. As it turned out, there are no rules, regulations or policies about herb gardens in prisons. So, he left it alone and moved on. But there are no secrets in East Texas. Word got out. It was a no-brainer. Prisons across the state heard about the herb garden in the Dalhart Unit and all of a sudden, everyone wanted one.
The herb gardens were clearly a success. You see, a little savory in beans goes a long way. Food had gone from the bland, marginally seasoned fare typical of many large-scale food operations, to a tasty, well-received meal that both prisoners and staff could appreciate. Remember, whatever your view of corrections or criminals might be, it is our job to feed them. What's more, in Texas, the correctional staff eats the same food as the incarcerated population. If they are eating beans and cornbread, we're eating beans and cornbread. Correctional officers want the food to taste good just as much as they do.
We all like to brag, and several prisons were starting to brag that they had the best herbs. So, to see which prison had the best herbs, we had a friendly competition called "Herbs Behind Bars." The Michael Unit entered, and we entered...