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Gus Harrison Correctional Facility inmates grow, donate produce

One pumpkin at Carpenter Farms weighs 538 pounds. It might not be the biggest in Lenawee County history, but its size is noteworthy. In fact, many families who stop by the Madison Township farm to grab a regular-size pumpkin snap a photo with it to mark the moment. The pumpkin is one the current centerpieces for the farm’s annual pumpkin season. However, it wasn’t grown at the farm. It was grown down the road behind the barbed wired fences of the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility. “We’ve had a great relationship with them,” Matt Carpenter said of his family farm and the prison, which is his neighbor just to the north. For the past nine years, Carpenter said, the prison has been donating to the farm pumpkins grown on its grounds by prisoners. He said the larger pumpkins the prison sends over are big attractions for visits by school and daycare groups as well as families. The farm grows its own pumpkins, but not typically of the size the prison does, which can range from 200 to 700 pounds. Timothy Buis, a corrections program coordinator at Gus Harrison and one of the staff members helping the prisoners with the pumpkins and other produce in the gardens at the facility, said in addition to the pumpkin donations they also give up to 10,000 pounds of produce to places such as the Fishes & Loaves Food Pantry, The Daily Bread of Lenawee and the Adrian Senior Center. Some of the big pumpkins are decorated. This year, and in the past, the prisoners have decorated them in the colors and emblems of Michigan State University and the University of Michigan, to mark the big football game. These are part of the Gus Harrison staff’s annual harvest gathering and tailgate party, where they will be bid on with the proceeds from them and other items benefiting Fishes & Loaves. Buis said being involved in the pumpkin growing is not just a way for the prisoners to pass the time. He said it means a lot to them. The prisoners do all of the work, he said, so it truly is their project. “They love it,” he said of the prisoners. “They have the planting and growing process down to a science, and to see the finished product that will go on display, I know that means a lot to them.” He said it also is teaching some skills to the prisoners. He said they have a great story of a former prisoner taking the skills he learned and, after being paroled, working at a greenhouse while growing his own pumpkins on the side. The pumpkins are planted from seed linage dating back to 2007, when the program began. To ensure the breeding linage, the prisoners pollinate all of the pumpkins by hand. No one would know it by looking at the end product, but the prisoners in many ways are at a disadvantage to those on the outside because there are certain things they can’t use in the growing process. They don’t have access to pesticides or fungicides to prevent and combat potentially deadly insects and disease, which can plague giant pumpkin growers. At Gus Harrison, they use milk, soap, baking soda and bleach to fight these things off. William Harvey, a prisoner at Gus Harrison and a pumpkin grower, said this is his second year working with the gardens and pumpkins. He said he didn’t know going into it that it would have such a positive impact on him. “It’s a life experience,” Harvey said. “From pollinating them by hand to seeing them grow from a leaf to a vine that can be 20 yards long, and then end up being as big as they are. “It’s a learning experience.”