Lettuce Grow photo
An inmate garden grows at Columbia River Correctional Institute in Portland.
Lettuce Grow photo
An inmate garden grows at Columbia River Correctional Institute in Portland.
Inmates at five Oregon prisons tend organic vegetable gardens and learn about the craft because of a program started by a member of St. Andrew Parish in Portland.

Sarah Patterson, an attorney who specializes in Social Security and disability law, hopes the project will plant seeds of hope in prisoners and bear fruit when convicts get released.

The gardening network is now known by the doubly meaningful name Lettuce Grow. One wag suggested the organization be called Lettuce Out instead.  

Some inmates have experience growing plants that are illegal. Now they are turning their skills to nutritious crops.

"I can hardly tell you how enthused and curious and passionate these people are," says Patterson, a former Jesuit Volunteer and a passionate gardener.  

She says the know-how will help inmates once they are released and start searching for employment. Some even are studying to become master gardeners through the OSU program.

The first garden was planted in 2009 at Coffee Creek, the women's prison near Wilsonville.

Two events brought the plan forward. Patterson had been visiting inmates at Coffee Creek for eight years and then Portland State began teaching a class on sustainability at the prison. The inmate students began a recycling effort and then wanted a garden. Patterson helped the enthused group get the idea to state prison officials, who gave approval.  

A master gardener volunteered to help get the garden going and 7,000 square feet went into production.

A crew of six inmates at Coffee Creek built a small greenhouse out of used plastic softdrink bottles.     

Francis Frost, serving time for manslaughter, helped build the greenhouse and takes pride in the gardening project. She told the Portland Tribune last year that the work is like a course in responsibility, which will come in handy when she gets out.

“In doing this, we had to problem-solve a lot of things,” Frost told the Tribune. “We got annoyed with each other sometimes. We had to figure out how to work through that."

Patterson wrote to officials at other prisons to pitch the idea. Many responded with interest. Volunteers met repeatedly with staff, superintendents, kitchen managers and prospective inmate gardeners.

Now gardens are in place at Columbia River Correctional Institution in Portland, Oregon State Penitentiary and Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, and Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City. OSCI has committed an entire acre to the work.

Scores of inmates are involved. It's viewed as a perk to be able to work in the programs.   

"These are good gardens," Patterson says. "They grow a lot of food."

Last year, the prison gardens produced 82,000 pounds of produce valued at about $150,000. About a quarter of that was donated to food banks.  

The more food prisons can grow, the less they need to have trucked in. That can cut down on greenhouse gases.

Some of the vegetables go to local food banks, but prisons are now using the produce to feed inmates.

The gardens give a healthful boost to the typical prison diet. Patterson says "basic" is almost too kind a word for what inmates typically get fed.

"I am really excited about the potential of this," says Patterson, who has fielded inquiries from prison workers and social workers in other states.

Grants for the Oregon program have come from PGE and Portland Nursery. Oregon State University Master Gardener's Program donates lots of material and Gail Langelletto, Oregon State professor and head of the state Master Gardening program, has been teaching classes at Columbia River Correctional Institution. Langelletto has been impressed with the vitality of the students.  

The project is now looking to hire an executive director. Patterson wants to stay involved, but turn over some duties.  

Mark Gaskill, a local philanthropist who has watched Patterson's project with interest, marvels at the way Lettuce Grow achieves so many goals. Inmates are helped, the environment aided, health improved.   

"This is an amazing success story," says Gaskill, "and something right here in Oregon that we all can be proud of."