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Inmates: Orchard work is plum job

September 22, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Feeling morning dew dampen the cuffs of his prison-issued pants and the crisp chill of an early autumn day, Michael Broadway picks through Roxbury Correctional Institution's apple orchard and has a sense of freedom.

Broadway was among a handful of Maryland Correctional Training Center prerelease inmates who picked Red Delicious apples Tuesday at an orchard just outside the Roxbury Correctional Institution, a medium-security prison set off from two others on Roxbury Road off Sharpsburg Pike.

The Maryland Correctional Institution-Hagerstown, the first of three state prisons south of Hagerstown, once was called "The Farm," said Jeff Sollenberger, former agriculture manager with State Use Industries, a state agency under the Division of Correction that provides jobs and training to prisoners.

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In the early days of MCI, which opened in 1932, inmates worked the land, growing much of the food they ate inside the prison.

Much of the farming stopped in the 1960s. Then, in 1998 and in 1999, 3 acres of Gala apples and 3 acres of Red Delicious apples were planted, Sollenberger said.

"They wanted to get back to their original roots," Sollenberger said.

Out of sight of the wire-topped fences that surround each prison, beyond the watchtowers and out of earshot of the intercom systems, the orchards sit behind tall chain-link fences - not erected "to keep the prisoners in, but to keep the deer out," said Cliff Benser, projects manager for State Use Industries.

Inside the orchard, the fence is blurred by the foliage of the apple trees, making it easy for an inmate like Broadway, who is serving a 25-year sentence for breaking and entering, to forget that he's imprisoned.

Broadway, 46, said he has a sense of freedom at the orchards in the morning.

"Sometimes with the grass, my feet get wet," he said, adding that fresh, cool air is something he doesn't get inside his MCTC cell, where he spends most of his time.

"It gets you away from being inside for a while," he said. "Nobody's really messing with you, you're just picking apples. It's like meditation."

Prisoners harvested the crop of Gala apples earlier in the year. Between the two crops, inmates picked about 45,000 apples, enough to feed the 6,800 prisoners at Roxbury Road's three prisons about three apples each day for two days, said Ron Henson, plant manager for State Use Industries.

He said that this year, prisoners also harvested 6 acres of sweet corn, or about 30,000 to 40,000 ears, which the prisoners also ate.

"Per day it's a big savings - on the day it's served," Sollenberger said. "It's a drop in the bucket compared to what they spend annually on food."

Frederick Britton, 40, who is serving an 18-year sentence at MCTC for second-degree murder, said he's able to send his daughter some money as a result of the work. Inmates get paid to pick the apples, he said.

"I can't send her apples, though," Britton said.

Britton said that as he's plucking apples from the trees, he reflects on how he has matured in the years he's spent behind bars.

"It's a peace of mind. It allows you to be off by yourself to think about all that without any distractions," he said.

MCTC inmate Jonathan Beemer said "it's hard going back." Beemer, 31, is serving a seven-year, six-month prison sentence for burglary, and is due for release next March.

Beemer said he doesn't mind the wait and thinks about its approach while he's out in the field.

"We wake up pretty early, come out here and it's still pretty chilly," he said. "Before you know it, the day is gone."

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