ERWIN — A small group made up of Unicoi County inmates and volunteers took advantage of Friday afternoon’s clear skies by taking to the field located behind the Holiday Inn Express in Erwin.
By 1:30 p.m., rows of potatoes had already been planted. In the future, the field will also be used to raise corn, beans, tomatoes, squash and other vegetables. The group’s effort is part of a Unicoi County Sheriff’s Department program that has been implemented to help offset the ever rising costs of food for the populations housed in the county’s jails.
Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley said the two major costs of the county’s jails are medical expenses and costs associated with feeding prisoners. The opening of the county’s Jail Annex meant there were more mouths to feed, and jail food costs increase every year, Hensley said.
“We’re trying to utilize every effort to cut the costs,” he said.
One of these efforts is to have the inmates grow their own food. Vegetables grown in the garden will be used at both of the county’s jail facilities. Hensley said this has been done in the past and, depending on the year, has led to significant savings for the county.
“If it’s a good crop year, if we’ve had good rain and all that, it has worked that way in the past and cut down on the cost of food for the jail,” he said.
Because work on the garden program is being completed by inmates and volunteers, there are no labor costs associated with it. Hensley said the field being used in the program was donated, so there is no cost associated with its use. The UCSD also received a donation of 200 pounds of seed potatoes from a Unicoi County resident.
Hensley said having inmates work in the garden to grow the food they eventually consume helps offset food costs by cutting down on the amount of food that must be ordered for Unicoi County’s jails. This in turn will save taxpayers money, he said.
“It gives the guys a chance to get out and exercise, grow their own food,” Hensley said. “They appreciate that. And it’s just common sense that fresh vegetables are better than those out of a can. Any time we can save money, that’s what I’m all about, not just for me as sheriff, but for the taxpayers of the county.”