LAND O'LAKES — Chad Free has been in jail since February, after he turned himself in for violating his probation on grand theft charges. He had been on the lam for six months.
"I got tired of running and always looking over my shoulder," he said. "I wanted to get on with my life."
On Thursday morning, the 21-year-old felt closer to normal than he has since his arrest. He began his first day working in the county jail's agricultural program, which saves money and gives some inmates confidence.
"They get a sense of achievement," said Sheriff Bob White at a dedication ceremony for the jail's new hydroponic greenhouse. The previous one was destroyed by a tornado in 2007.
"It's starting something and seeing it to fruition," White said. "Many of our inmates have not had that experience."
Every day at the jail, nearly 500 heads of lettuce — rex, romaine, bib — are harvested from the greenhouse, which goes to the jail's kitchen and feeds inmates and deputies. The crew also grows beefsteak tomatoes, grape tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, cucumbers, collard greens, eggplant, thyme, basil, parsley, garlic and sage. There is a traditional in-ground garden that grows potatoes, cabbage and other vegetables. There is another hydroponic garden just for ornamental plants, which are used for landscaping at the jail and for horticultural training for the inmates. There is a plan to possibly sell the plants to the public in the future.
In addition to gardening, inmates care for pigs — right now they have 120 — which are sent off to Manatee County, where there is an inmate slaughterhouse program. The meat comes back to the jail.
According to the Sheriff's Office, last year 67 pigs were processed into 10,244 pounds of pork, saving the jail $13,113.
Last month, the jail began a cattle program. Once the herd gets bigger, some will be slaughtered to provide meat.
Vegetables that can't be eaten are fed to the pigs.
"We don't waste anything," said Major Brian Head.
The money for the program comes from federal grants. The new hydroponic greenhouse came in pieces and was built by the inmates, from pouring the concrete floor to installing the irrigation system. They finished the work eight weeks ago.
Inmates don't get paid, but they do earn time off their sentences — one and a half days for every 40 hours worked. Those able to join the program must have been sentenced for nonviolent crimes.
"We can't always teach them a trade, but we can teach them to get out of bed and work," Head said.
Free is scheduled to get out of jail in August. As he watered squash and peppers in the garden Thursday, he said he now thinks of being outside as a privilege.
"I love it," he said. "It feels better than to be trapped inside like an animal."
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at email@example.com.