Potter County jail garden will stay empty

Potter County jail garden will stay empty
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA

AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas's job is full these days as he oversees a major Texas Panhandle law enforcement agency.

Thomas said he doesn't need to be tending to a vegetable garden, which as sheriff he used to do on grounds next to the county detention center.

The garden plot has gone fallow and it's likely to stay that way, Thomas said.

There once was a time when jail trusties took care of planting, nurturing and harvesting vegetables on the five-acre plot. That responsibility ended in 2009, Thomas said, for a number of reasons.

"It cost the county about $10,000 a year just to keep it watered," said Thomas. "That's one reason." He said the county simply couldn't afford to spend that amount of public money on an endeavor that was bringing limited benefit to county taxpayers.

The sheriff said he had to assign a deputy to work essentially full-time overseeing the activities of the trusties who were given permission to work outside the walls of the detention center. "We would lose an employee, essentially, for six months a year," Thomas said of the man-hour commitment the department had to make to keep the garden going.

Randall County Sheriff Joel Richardson said his department once used jail trusties to take care of a vegetable garden, but gave up on the idea for essentially the same reasons that Potter County gave up. Richardson called the garden "too much of a hassle."

Not long after Thomas took over as sheriff, the garden was pummeled by what the sheriff described as a "horrendous hail storm that destroyed our crops ... everything. The vegetables were destroyed. The harvest was gone. We didn't bring anything in after that."

A third reason for the garden's demise, said Thomas, was that the vendor with whom the county had a contract to use the vegetables in the jail kitchen decided against using the produce to feed the inmates. Instead, the sheriff said, the vendor donated the vegetables to non-profit agencies -- such as senior centers -- in the greater Amarillo area.

"That's not really a waste of taxpayer money," Thomas said, but one of the essential reasons for setting up the garden was to save the county money it would have spent on food for the inmates housed at the detention center.

The garden was created during the administration of former Sheriff Mike Schumate, said Thomas. The vendor working with the county would pay for the seeds to plant the vegetables and the county would harvest the produce.

Schumate left office in 2008 after being convicted of a felony, the county appointed an interim sheriff to run the department until the next election. Thomas won the 2008 election and took office in January 2009.

What will become of the five-acre plot where trusties planted corn, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers and assorted other vegetables? Thomas said the land eventually will be where the county builds its new Sheriff's Office administration building. Thomas said his department will vacate its current office at Sixth Avenue and Pierce Street in downtown Amarillo once the new building is done.

Taking care of the garden became too much of a burden for the Sheriff's Office to bear, Thomas conceded. It became "harder and harder to find qualified trusties to work in the garden."

"I had to assign a deputy to oversee their work," Thomas said, "and six or seven trusties are outside the walls of the detention center -- all of whom are carrying farm implements," such as shovels, pick axes, hoes and heavy rakes. Each of those tools can be used as weapons, Thomas said.

"Plus, we have to be picky on who we send out there," Thomas said.

The jail follows strict criteria on which jail inmates can qualify as trusties, Thomas said, citing several examples: they cannot be convicted of any crime involving "escape or evasion"; they cannot be convicted of violent crimes; they can't be referred from the state prison system to the jail on a "bench warrant"; they cannot be convicted of an assault on a public servant.

Those inmates who've served as trusties in the past can qualify, Thomas said, joking that some inmates "like our bed and breakfast so much they keep coming back."

The county detention center averages about 450 inmates daily, Thomas said, describing the lockup as involving "in-direct supervision." Thus, according to the sheriff, his department needs to have one corrections officer for every 48 inmates. Randall County, said Thomas, has a "direct supervision" jail and is able to operate with one deputy for every 72 inmates.

"I just don't foresee a new garden out there," Thomas said. "We're doing all we can to manage the jail population. Our manpower needs are huge."
Of the 219 employees who work for the Sheriff's Department, Thomas said he has 183 assigned to work in the jail.

"The jail is our major operation," Thomas said, "and it's our major liability."

Copyright 2016 KFDA. All rights reserved.