AUGUSTA — The first frost of the season had already arrived as inmates from the Kennebec County Correctional Facility worked under a gray sky one day in late September to harvest the last of the year’s potatoes.

As a cold wind blew across the soil, five men – wearing trademark orange T-shirts and sweatshirts printed with the facility’s name – bent over, scooped up potatoes and tossed aside any that were broken, split, brown or green. The good spuds went into bright orange buckets. Except for a few rows of potatoes at the edge of the five-acre field, located just a few miles from the jail, most of the vegetables had already been picked. As the men quietly worked, a corrections officer drove a tractor turning over the soil.

In about two hours, the inmates filled three and a half crates of potatoes, each weighing 1,100 pounds. It was just a fraction of the 35,000 pounds of produce total that they grew this year through the Kennebec County Restorative Community Harvest. (Some years, they’ve raised as much as 50,000 pounds.) The program, which teaches inmates to farm, is run by the county department of corrections. But its real aim is charitable: The food the inmates raise – also tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and pumpkins – is donated to more than 30 local schools, soup kitchens and other nonprofit community organizations.

The state’s Downeast, Bolduc and Charleston correctional facilities all have inmate gardens, as well. These prisons use the vegetables they grow as building blocks for meals for the prisoners, but they do donate any surplus produce to the needy.

Funding for the Kennebec program – including seedlings and some 50 chickens for a new pilot program aimed at teaching inmates to raise livestock – comes mostly from grants and private donations, including a $5,650 from the Maine Local Foods grant program sponsored by the Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Foundation and the Maine Sunday Telegram. The field belongs to the state Department of Agriculture.

Originally called the Inmate Garden Project, it was started 17 years ago by Kennebec County Sheriff Randy Liberty (yes, that’s really his name), who is also a Maine master gardener. From the time the ground thaws in early spring through the last harvest in the fall, both corrections officers and a rotating cycle of inmates work the field.

“It started with just the concept of the sheriff’s office having the manpower and the ability to facilitate a garden,” Liberty said. “We saw a need to address food insecurity and felt that it was important to do our part to relieve some of the burdens of people who can’t afford food.”

BOOTS ON THE GROUND

The garden offers inmates the chance to reduce their sentences by participating in the jail’s community service work crew. Typically, the prisoners are assigned to a community service project and don’t know ahead of time what they will be doing that day. It could be maintenance work at parks, schools or other nonprofits. Or it could be the Restorative Community Harvest. One inmate, who declined to identify himself, glanced down at the worn field boots of Corrections Officer Michael Smith. “Sometimes we can tell where we’re going in the morning based on what shoes he’s wearing,” the inmate said.

Inmates must qualify in order to work in the garden: They must be classified as minimum security, which rules out sex offenders, those serving sentences for domestic violence, and anyone who authorities say poses a risk to the community or might try to escape. The field, at the end of a long dirt road, is not fenced in.

Those who do participate can earn a day off their sentence for every 16 hours worked. (Officials like the benefit, too, as they say it helps alleviate overcrowding at the jail.)

Brewster Bainer, who was convicted on a drug-trafficking charge, has been able to reduce his sentence from 150 days to 93 through community service and for good behavior. Like most of the inmates we interviewed, he said the farm work is preferable to other jobs open to inmates, such as serving trays in the cafeteria, shoveling snow or doing laundry.

“It’s nice to get to leave the jail,” said Bainer, 29, of Fairfield. On “the outside,” he works on a tree removal crew, he said, so the work is familiar.

The prison garden also may provide inmates with a sense of meaning. “Maybe that provides some healing for them,” Liberty said. “After being found guilty of a crime and serving time, it makes them feel productive and like they’re giving back.”

“It is kind of cool,” said Anthony Williams, 30, who was convicted of criminal threatening with a dangerous weapon during the Occupy Augusta protests in 2011. A quiet inmate with several tattoos, he is now serving seven months as part of a deferred sentence. Interviewed as he hauled a bucket of potatoes to one of the bins scattered around the field, he said, “I mean, I do know people who go to the food bank, and they’re getting the potatoes that we’re picking now.

Rodney Hall, 33, of Waterville, who is serving a nine-month sentence for assault, agreed. “It’s a good feeling to know that we’re giving to the needy,” he said. He’s not a gardener and says he plans to resume buying potatoes at Hannaford when he gets out of jail. But the work was easy to learn, he said, and he likes being outside.

100 PERCENT DONATED

It used to be that the harvest was split between donations and the prison’s own kitchen, where the vegetables were used in meals for the inmates. But five years ago, the jail contracted for food with an outside vendor, which charges a price per meal. The arrangement has saved the jail about $100,000 annually, Liberty said. Since it no longer made financial sense to grow food for the jail kitchen, the program shifted its focus and now donates 100 percent of the vegetables.

Just a few days after the inmates harvested the potatoes, about 100 pounds of the tubers went to Maranacook Community High School in nearby Readfield. Faced with limited storage space and limited staff, as well as shrinking budgets, the high school struggles to get fresh food on its menu. Just 3 percent of the district’s food comes from local farms, said Jeff Bridges, director of nutritional services, adding that he’d like to see that percentage go up.

A nonprofit group called Healthy Communities of the Capital Area helps transport the vegetables from the prison garden to the school, sometimes making a stop at the Cohen Community Center in Hallowell, which often processes the produce for the school. On a recent afternoon, the inmates spent the morning harvesting 750 pounds of butternut squash, which they piled into the back of a sheriff’s office truck and delivered to the community center themselves, under the watchful eye of a corrections officer.

The fact that the inmates grow the food, the community center processes it, and school children ultimate eat it is “pretty cool,” said Allison Leavitt, culinary operations manager at the Cohen Center. “There’s a huge local food movement right now, but it can be hard to break down that door of getting it into schools.”

Her team peels, cores, dices, steams and freezes the squash, which makes it far easier for the school to incorporate it into menus for the students.

“We use all of it,” Bridges said of the produce the school has received from the jail. “It also frees up our budgets to spend more money on other local produce.”

PLANS TO EXPAND

Next spring, the jail hopes to expand the program with a livestock component. Since neither the jail nor the garden have facilities for chickens, this year, the sheriff raised about 50 of the birds himself, at his home. After the birds were slaughtered, the inmates helped distribute them. The program is looking for a location for the chicken operation where the inmates would be able to help raise the birds. Unlike pigs or cows, chickens are a quick turn-around, Liberty said, meaning that they can be raised and killed for meat in about eight weeks, and that rapid time frame suits the Restorative Community Harvest program.

“It’s nice for families to be able to receive produce, but we’re missing the protein piece,” Liberty said. “In Maine, and in America, there’s no excuse for food insecurity. There are so many resources and so much ability to raise food. That’s why we do this.”