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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Jail Industries of Sonoma County Change Lives

Plants…Changing People

by Tish Levee
On October 2nd and October 16th, from 9 AM to Noon, Jail Industries will hold their semi-annual plant sale at 2254 Ordinance Road (turn right off Airport Boulevard). This little-known program is making a big difference in Sonoma County and the lives of school children, food banks, gardeners, and, especially, inmates at the North County Detention Facility. The result of a unique partnership between the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department and several groups, including the Sonoma County Office of Education, the National Tree Trust, the Master Gardeners, and the Sonoma County Compost Club, Jail Industries began in 1994.

That’s when Rick Stern was hired to head up a program to train inmates to grow and nurture over 200 varieties of plants. Cammie Noah, the Manager of Inmate Services and Programs for the Sheriff’s Office, says that Rick is the main reason for the program’s success.

Rick teaches classes in propagation methods, landscape design, soil conservation, and composting. Inmates, ranging in age from 18 to 60, develop employable skills and elf-esteem and can earn a certificate of completion to take to prospective employers upon their release. Some have gone on to the horticulture program at the junior college or even to the program at U.C. Santa Cruz. Ten per cent of those who go through the program take jobs in the field.

In addition to classroom instruction, inmates take part in one of three programs. The first produces fresh vegetables for both jail facilities on two acres of land. The program tries to match the needs of the jail so as to not have extra produce. However, if they do, groups such as the Children’s Home pick it up.

A second program develops landscaping skills. Inmates do all the landscaping at both detention facilities and have landscaped other county facilities, such as the Sebastopol Skate Park and the Children’s Home.

The nursery program is the third one; its plant sales to the public support the entire Agriculture Vocational Education Program. It also supplies seedlings to schools with garden programs and other plants for them to use for fund-raising. Extra tree seedlings are supplied free to schools. Each year the program propagates 40,000 cuttings and grows over 200 varieties of plants, ranging from seedlings to big trees in 24” boxes.

The inmates grow all plants without fertilizer or pesticides, in organic compost from Sonoma Compost, which uses garden and kitchen waste from curb-side green barrels. The program also makes compost from garden waste generated at the jails while kitchen waste from both jail facilities is used in worm beds with the castings being added to the compost.

The program has come a long way since Rick Stern started it sixteen years ago. The first six months were a real challenge. He was given a few inmates and a part-time classroom, one greenhouse, and a few raised beds. The rest of the five acres that the program now uses were covered with junk and trash, including old mattresses and discarded office equipment. The intensive work to clear it took a month.
Today, ten cold frame structures protect the plants, including 2,000 fifteen-gallon and 7,000 five-gallon trees, with room for 40,000 one-gallon shrubs and other perennial plants, plus 1,000 flats of annual vegetables and flowers. 

Come to the Jail Industries Sale on October 2nd or October 16th. Tour the facilities and purchase trees, shrubs, perennials, vines, and grasses at incredible prices. Bring your own cart or wagon to transport them - no credit cards or cash - checks only, please. This is the only place to purchase all of the Master Gardeners’ Sonoma Superstars: Very Drought Tolerant Plants. 

You can also support Probation Camp by buying wooden planters, picnic tables, and BBQ rings. Master Gardeners will be present to teach composting and making and using worm bins. 

Drop off old plant containers and books or magazines for the jail library while you’re there. Plant lists and prices are available online at
You can also make an appointment to tour the drought-resistant gardens and greenhouses and buy plants throughout the year on Tuesdays through Fridays from 9 A.M. to 1 P.M. by calling 707-525-8310. Go to to learn more about this great program and how you can help.

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