Inmates, cats tend to garden at Boulder County Jail |

Inmates, cats tend to garden at Boulder County Jail

John Bear
Daily Camera
Ardra the cat hangs out in the Boulder County jail garden in Boulder, Colo. Cats have joined forces with inmates to raise produce in the jail garden, which will likely yield more than 20,000 pounds of produce this fall.
Jeremy Papasso / Boulder Daily Camera via AP | Boulder Daily Camera

BOULDER, Colo. — The Boulder County Jail has two new residents, and they are both really scary.

If you’re a mouse, that is.

Charlie and Adra are a pair of cats — nature’s terminators — brought in to hunt mice and scare away rabbits at the jail’s organic garden.

So far, they are doing pretty well.

“The kitten is the one that likes to mouse,” Sgt. Paul Heger said. “The other one is OK. They catch mice and keep them out of the plants, so we don’t have to use chemicals.”

Both rescue cats, Charlie and Adra replaced Sarge, who patrolled the garden and pretty much the entire jail grounds and surrounding area for many years. Sarge’s initial replacement, Asher, didn’t take to jail life and ran off, but, so far, the new cats seem to like it.

Sarge came to an untimely demise about a year ago — no one is sure exactly how, but jail staff are pretty sure he was either hit by a car or attacked by an animal — and inmates set up a memorial plot at the front of the garden that bears his name. Someone hung a rosary on it.

The cats are a perennial favorite among the rotating inmates, reported the Daily Camera.

“Those guys are really fond of those cats,” Heger said. “One inmate got in trouble and couldn’t work in the garden. He kept asking about the cat. He didn’t care about anything else. That’s a big step for some of these guys.”

Heger said that working in the garden is a good experience for the inmates lucky enough to get picked for the job. A spot in the jail garden crew is highly coveted among inmates. About four people get to do it full time among a daily population above 500 inmates.

The inmates work upward of 12 hours a day and receive instruction from master gardeners who volunteer their time and expertise.

“It opens up inmates and gives them something they are learning,” Heger said. “It’s something they can take with them instead of bad experiences and bad ideas from other inmates.”

Among them is Andrew Johnson, who has been in jail for about a year on a probation violation stemming from misdemeanor domestic violence conviction. He’ll be there until October, just about when harvest comes in.

He said he has a pretty extensive criminal record, and although he doesn’t hold the criminal justice system in high regard, he appreciates the opportunity the jail has afforded him.

If you ask Johnson his favorite vegetables to grow, he pauses, cracks a smile and takes a moment to think about it.

“Tomatoes are pretty labor intensive,” he said. “Peppers are pretty low maintenance.”

He walks around the garden, rattling off a list of vegetables and plants he’s become acquainted with — Armenian cucumbers, tomatillos, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, watermelon and a dozen others.

“We feel like we took it to another level this year,” Johnson said. “But you are dealing with Mother Nature, so it’s a challenge.”

And they have taken it to another level.

The garden yielded about 13,000 pounds of produce last year and this year will likely produce more than 20,000 pounds. Inmates are cultivating more of the grounds, and volunteers have started planting flowers.

Inmates installed a fountain and stone work, and the jail recently received permission to build a greenhouse on an area currently flush with tomatillos. Inmates will use it to sprout seeds, something currently done at an outside nursery.

Heger said that the contractor that runs the jail buys the produce from the county, and the produce they don’t want gets donated to charity. In the end, he said, it saves taxpayers money.

Its true purpose, however, is to give inmates like Johnson — who has been in trouble since he was about 10 years old — something to be proud of, Heger said.

And keep them from coming back.

“You never think you’d have a big tough guy get teary-eyed when he gets to see a cat,” he said. “It opens them up to ideas and people and the experience. They get to see the yield that they brought with their hard labor.”

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