Correctional officer Tamara Cerny strolled around the Restorative Justice Garden on Monday morning in her blue polyester uniform, puffing on a Doral Ultra Light 100 cigarette. Cerny circled the 5-acre garden — past the rows of corn, the watermelon patch and the purple and white kohlrabi.
Finally, she reached the potatoes started with seeds she brought from home.
“I’ve got a garden on the outside,” said Cerny, a guard for eight years at the Boonville Correctional Center. “That was one of the requirements of the job — give your horticulture experience. I don’t have a horticulture degree. I don’t have any college, but I have grown a garden for the last 25 years of my life.”
Since May, Cerny has overseen the Restorative Justice Garden on the grounds of the medium-security prison west of Columbia. Usually in street clothes when she works the garden, she took some teasing about her guard’s blues as she unlocked the gates and directed 10 workers to the plots they would pick that day.
Cerny supervises 52 volunteers from Housing Unit 15 and six paid workers from other housing units as they tend the garden. The garden was started five years ago as a “restorative justice” tool designed to give inmates a way to pay back the community for their crimes. They take classes in restorative justice, designed to show them how their actions affect society, and the bounty of the garden is given to the needy.
“This is not really to make the inmates feel good. It’s for them to make amends and repair some of the things they’ve done,” said Tim Kniest, public information officer for the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Cerny sees the garden as a way for inmates to help the community and to learn skills that will be useful after they are released.
“Adapt, adjust and overcome. Adapt to the situation, adjust to it and you can overcome,” she said. She uses this phrase often to encourage the inmates and herself.
Produce from the garden is picked up on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays and taken to the Central Missouri Food Bank, the Boonslick Senior Center and the Harvest House Homeless Shelter.
“It’s given me time to think about the things I’ve done, and it keeps me out of trouble,” said inmate Steven Smith, the gardening team’s lead man and now one of the paid workers.
The paid workers make $25 a month. The volunteers are allowed to apply the time toward community service sentences they might have.
“I’ve volunteered six hours a day, five days a week for four years and extra hours when we water,” said Smith, who has gardened before and in 2002 took a master gardener program brought to the prison by MU.
This year, he almost had to hang up his tiller. It took state budget officials until May 13 to decide to continue the gardening program.
Once they were allowed to start gardening, the inmates scavenged on the prison grounds to find brick, stone and rocks to decorate the flower beds. Everything from the flowers to the produce was donated by Boonville Correctional Center staff, Community Garden Coalition of Columbia, the Central Missouri Food Bank, Stanaway Farms Greenhouse and Lowe’s Home Improvement Warehouse.
The late start has not stopped the inmates from producing as much as possible. They finished tilling and planting the two acres of the garden dedicated to vegetables in two weeks and last month donated 6,357 pounds to the community centers.
Cerny said she’s received lots of comments about the garden looking great, including one from the prison psychologist. “He says he has several clients that come and work out here, and he says you wouldn’t believe the way that they talk and how they take pride in what they’ve done,” she said.
Cerny is so dedicated to her position that she considered canceling her vacation in July because it was in the middle of the first harvest. But that commitment has not come without some headaches. Earlier in the season, she had problems with a few volunteers, which made her consider stepping out of her role.
“If I run away from problems, how can I teach them?” she said.
Teaching is Cerny’s main focus in overseeing the garden, and it’s her favorite part of the job. She said she’s not only taught “city boys” how to garden, but she has also taught them skills such as teamwork and following instructions.
“You’ve got to follow instructions if you’ve got bosses,” she said.
The garden also provides experiences the inmates might not have had.
“We have young men here. You’ve got to give them a sense of accomplishment. If you treat them all like failures, they’re going to be a failure when they get out. If you give them something to look forward to, if you give them something to take pride in, maybe when they get on the streets they’ll take pride in themselves. This is a good start,” Cerny said.
Inmate Tim Naes had never gardened before May. Now he volunteers in the garden about three days a week, working at other times in the prison’s General Education Development testing center. Naes said he thinks the program works because the inmates know it’s helping people instead of hurting them.
Not only is Naes excited about his new skill, so is his mother.
“My mom drives by here every week when she comes to visit and checks on the progress,” he said. “My mom’s looking forward to having home-grown vegetables when I’m out of here.”