David Hudnall 2016-09-16 02:51:55
Lion Brian Habjan Lions partner with Leavenworth inmates on a bountiful garden. The United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas, was the largest maximum-security prison in the country for more than 100 years—from 1903, when it was built, until 2005. James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr., did time there. So did Boston Irish mob boss Whitey Bulger. Machine Gun Kelly died of a heart attack inside its walls. These days, though, supermax prisons, designed with 21st-century security concerns in mind, are where they send the really bad guys. Leavenworth looks a bit creaky and crumbly by comparison and has been downgraded to a medium-security prison. It’s also home to a separate, dormitory-style prison for minimum-security inmates— “the camp,” as it’s known around Leavenworth. NFL quarterback and dogfighting financier Michael Vick, for example, served 19 months at the camp in 2008-2009. The camp is also where USP Leavenworth’s Prison Garden Project gets its volunteers, Brian Habjan, community coordinator for the program, explains one morning. “It’s all non-violent, low-threat guys who aren’t going to be away from society very long—less than five years, typically,” Habjan says of the roughly 10 inmates who participated in the program in 2015. Habjan (pronounced hay-bee-in) drives along the southern boundary of the prison property in a Chevrolet Suburban with an “Eat Beef” sticker on its bumper. To the north are hundreds of acres of undeveloped land owned by the prison. Roughly 20 of those acres are now used every year as part of the Prison Garden Project. Since 2010, this land has yielded nearly 700,000 pounds of fresh produce— all of which finds its way to needy families in Leavenworth County. Tends to the garden just outside the prison fence of Leavenworth. Inmate Corbin Bosiljevac works the fields and then carries harvested greens to a truck for distribution for those in need. The produce includes lettuce, cabbage, onions and spinach. Habjan pulls off onto a private road that leads to USP Leavenworth’s food-distribution warehouse. Though the facility is owned by, and adjacent to, the prison, it’s technically outside the fence: free country. Despite this, two men in tan-colored jumpsuits are loading tubs of freshly-picked vegetables into a trailer bed outside the facility. “Yep, those are inmates,” Habjan says. He explains that, because these prisoners have relatively short sentences, the risk of getting caught trying to escape just isn’t worth it. “There’s guards circulating the grounds, of course, but sure, they could walk off,” Habjan says. “But it never happens. Minimum-security guys, they just want to serve their time and be done. And if you get caught trying to escape, you’re just doubling up on your sentence. It just doesn’t make any sense to try it.” By volunteering for the Prison Garden Project, prisoners forfeit the opportunity to work a paying job at the prison. You can’t do both. But the experience can be worth it in other ways. For one, it offers a huge amount of freedom. A prisoner involved in the program can spend virtually his entire day working unsupervised in the fields if he so chooses. It also affords the opportunity to learn the nuances of agriculture in an immediate environment that would be hard to come across in the real world. Habjan uses the example of one inmate, whom he refers to as Corbin (inmates are not allowed to speak to the media) to illustrate the value of the program for the incarcerated. Since 2010, this land has yielded nearly 700,000 pounds of fresh produce—all of which finds its way to needy families. “He’s really taken to the program and been deeply involved this year from the planting stage through to the harvest,” Habjan says. “Next year, he’ll be able to use that knowledge to assist us in the garden plan, move the crops around, say what worked and what didn’t work. And when he gets out, that’s a really valuable skill to have.” One former inmate in the program now works for a chemical company, and another manages a landscaping company. “The challenge for us is that, obviously, these guys want to leave prison first chance they get, and their sentences are pretty short,” Habjan continues. “So every other year or so we get a turnover of inmates who don’t know anything about farming, and we have a lot of teaching to do. We have to start back over at square one.” Habjan parks his SUV and walks over to meet with the two prison employees who coordinate the program from the inside: Matt Nowell, who runs the food-distribution warehouse, and Keith Thomas, who oversees education programs at the camp. “What do we got today?” Habjan asks. “End of the road,” Nowell says, gesturing at the produce. A frost was expected that evening, making this the final haul of the year. In anticipation, the inmates had picked just about all the remaining crops. The next day, they’d begin the process of turning over the fields in preparation for winter. The haul included a variety of peppers (bell, habanero, cayenne), turnips, green beans, lettuce, a few random parsnips. Earlier in the year, there would have been “tomatoes, squash, melons, potatoes, sweet corn—just about everything you can think of,” Thomas says, “except cauliflower.” Nowell adds: “Zucchini grows like crazy up here.” Twice a week during growing season, every Tuesday and Thursday from April through November, Habjan makes the trip to this distribution point and loads as much of the produce as he can into his Suburban and then drops it off at various food banks in Leavenworth County. “We grow it,” Thomas says, “and he gets rid of it.” Federal law, though, prohibits the prison from using federal funds to pay for community programs such as the Prison Garden Project. So where does the money come from? Thomas smiles and nods at Habjan. “That’s where Lion Brian comes in,” he says. Habjan is a member of the Linwood Lions Club. Linwood is about 30 miles south of Leavenworth. But since he works in Leavenworth, he’s also friendly with the Lions in Leavenworth, which has the largest club in the state—184 members strong. “They’re the biggest, and we’re [Linwood] probably the smallest,” Habjan says. Through Habjan, they’ve discovered a way to unite their strengths. Exiting the prison grounds with a car packed to the brim with vegetables, Habjan gestures at the unoccupied land surrounding USP Leavenworth. “At one time, all this you see here was used for crop production,” Habjan says. “Beef, pork, and dairy, too. There was a full farming operation. Inmates farmed the land, and that’s how they fed them. Then, in 1985, the prison decided that it made more sense to buy food from outside vendors than to grow it and raise it there. So they decommissioned the program.” In 2007, though, a food service manager at USP Leavenworth planted a small garden that provided occasional fresh produce for prisoners’ meals. The warden at the time, Claude Chester, liked the garden. He was also interested in finding ways the prison could become more involved with the greater Leavenworth community. Chester thought expanding the prison’s farming operations might be a way to accomplish that. So the next year he asked the prison’s community relations board if it knew of anybody with some expertise in growing food. “Well, I was on that board, because at the time I was the president of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce,” Habjan says. “And even though I’m a banker by day [he’s vice president of commercial loans at the Leavenworth branch of Commerce Bank], I have an agricultural background. I grew up in southwest Missouri, and our family had a little acreage and garden down there. I worked for farmers growing up. And here in Leavenworth, I’ve got a little vegetable corporation where we have crops on about 20 acres. So as soon as I raised my hand, it was pretty much, ‘OK, Brian’s in charge now.’” Over the next year, Habjan worked closely with the prison to build out the program. They recruited prisoners to participate and lined up folks such as Thomas to assist with the educational component. But it soon became clear that to meaningfully expand the Prison Garden Project would require a significant infusion of money—about $1,000 a year—to pay for the seeds. Since the prison’s purse strings were tied up by the law, they needed to find reliable outside financing. Leavenworth Lion Sam Maxwell, a cabinetmaker and furniture-repair specialist by trade, recalls Habjan bringing the Prison Garden Project idea to the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce. “The chamber basically said, ‘We don’t know what the hell to make of this,’” Maxwell says. “But I knew Brian from the Lions, and I came up to him and said, ‘We’re Lions club members, we can do this damn thing through the Lions. We just gotta find the money.’ So we asked Deborah [Weaverling], who was the [Leavenworth Lions] president at the time, for $500 from the discretionary fund. Then we went to two banks in town and got two $250 loans for the Lions. We wrote Brian a check for $1,000 that day and said, ‘Go for it.’” That year, the program produced 200,000 pounds of free produce for area families. “From $1,000 worth of seeds!” Maxwell says. “I just about fell over. You talk about return on your money. So I took that information back to the Lions club and said, ‘This is an amazing program, and we need to be all over this thing. And to do that we need to give this program $1,000 every year for seeds.’ And that’s how it’s been working every year since—seven years now. We’ve done the math, and if you bought it at a grocery store, it’s $859,000 worth of food. In seven years the Lions have given all of that away.” While it’s the Leavenworth Lions who pay for the program’s seeds, it’s the Linwood Lions who do much of the distribution. In addition to its members dropping the prison-grown produce off at several food banks in Leavenworth County, the Linwood Lions have also built a shelter house that serves as a distribution point for the program. “Basically, the Linwood Lions Club is the drop point for the program in Linwood,” Habjan says. “People in Linwood know they can come by every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 p.m. during the season.” “It’s similar to a farmers market,” Habjan continues, “except it’s free.” Serving a Need It is an unfortunate truth that a majority of Leavenworth County residents are in particular need of what the Prison Garden Project provides. Poverty has skyrocketed in recent years. Due to concern about malnourishment, a program called Backpack Buddies sends approximately 750 children home with backpacks of donated food every weekend. Two-thirds of the children in Leavenworth public schools qualify for free or reduced lunches, a number that climbs every year. Janet Stuke, the head volunteer at the Good Shepherd Food Bank in Tonganoxie, says anywhere between 80 and 100 people take advantage of the Prison Garden Project every week when it’s in season. “It’s been a great success in that way,” Stuke says. “People start asking in February, ‘When do you think the prison will get the farm going again?’” It’s the same story at the Catholic Charities Emergency Assistance Program in Leavenworth. Later that afternoon, as Habjan uses a shopping cart to wheel several trays of green beans and lettuce into the building, manager Jackie Masoner describes the ever-rising poverty levels in northeast Kansas. ‘And we especially love that it’s not just food—it’s fresh fruits and vegetables. That it’s healthy food is really important.’ “We just keep servicing more and more people,” Masoner says. “A year ago in October, we serviced 575 individuals. Last month, it was 795 individuals. That’s why things like this are so important. And we especially love that it’s not just food—it’s fresh fruits and vegetables. That it’s healthy food is really important.” Outside Masoner’s office, a woman named Nilsa gathers green and orange peppers from a freshly arrived tray. “My kids like spicy stuff,” she says. Minutes later, an elderly couple leaves with some lettuce and green beans. “It’ll all be gone by tomorrow,” Masoner says. Habjan explains that the program was designed to eliminate as many barriers as possible to people receiving the food. “Social services agencies have to ask about income. We don’t do that,” he says. “We don’t ask for tax returns, we don’t ask for income, we don’t discriminate. If you show up, you can have the produce. All we want is your name and how many people will benefit from produce, so we can keep track of how many people we’re serving.” It’s time for Habjan to get back to his day job. There are still dozens of pounds of fresh food in the cargo area of his vehicle—a few ladybugs had already made their way to the front seat—but those he’d deliver after work, on the drive back to Linwood. Once those were unloaded, that’d be it for the Prison Garden Project for this year. “Until next year,” Habjan says with a smile. Recently based in Kansas City, David Hudnall is now a staff writer for INDY Week in Durham, North Carolina.
Published by International Association of Lions Clubs . View All Articles.
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