Since 2007, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has partnered with Lee College to conduct the annual Herbs Behind Bars competition, a friendly contest among TDCJ units where the best designed and most productive herb gardens win recognition for the staff and offenders who care for them.
Every year, instructors from Lee College work in coordination with the Food Service section of the Correctional Institutions Division’s Laundry, Food and Supply department to teach offenders valuable skills in garden design, production and maintenance. What started as a kitchen captain’s effort to improve the taste of meals has led to herb gardens sprouting up on TDCJ units around the state. Planning, planting and maintaining these gardens not only teaches offenders new skills, but also cultivates pride as offenders see how the time they spent pays off when their crop is used to improve the flavor of their food.
These gardens come in various sizes, but even a small garden can produce enough herbs to improve the flavor of offender meals. Using donated seeds, herbs grown in unit gardens are available for use at virtually no cost to the agency, and are a big help when it comes to reducing waste, as better tasting food is far more likely to be eaten than thrown away.
Offenders are taught the basics of planning a garden, but plant selection, location and care are their responsibility. During this process, offenders learn to plant, maintain and harvest crops, developing new skills and a better work attitude. Just as the seedlings they plant and care for grow into mature plants, offenders develop more positive attitudes about careful planning, physical labor and their potential rewards.
Competing units are divided into small, medium and large categories. Each unit assembles a book describing their horticultural achievements for the year, including planting data and photographs of gardens as they grow. This book is submitted for review by a panel of judges who have business, horticulture and gardening experience. Selection for recognition is based on the quality of the garden design, planting and harvesting success, how the herbs are used in the unit kitchen, and comments from kitchen staff and offenders.
Cilantro, commonly used in beans, salsa and different Mexican and Asian dishes, is among the most popular herbs grown. Other favorites include basil, garlic and onion chives, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary and thyme. Lemon balm is a fragrant herb used in some cakes prepared in the unit kitchens, and rosemary helps improve the flavor of chicken.
Nearly 60 TDCJ units currently have herb gardens, and the winners of the 2018 Herbs Behind Bars competition were announced in November.
Small Division (0-1,100 population)
First: Havins Unit
Second: Mountain View
Third: Hilltop Unit
Medium Division (1,101-2,000 population)
First: Skyview Unit
Second: Pack Unit
Third: Dalhart Unit
Large Division (2,001 or more population)
First: Robertson Unit
Second: Michael Unit
Third: Ellis Unit
This year’s Grand Champion, selected from among division winners, is the Robertson Unit in Abilene.
Robertson Unit Warden Steven Sperry noticed the herb garden when he first arrived at the unit, saying, “I’ve only been at Robertson for a little over a year, and my first impression of the unit was: Somebody really cares about that herb garden. That’s something that people are absolutely passionate about. It’s beautiful.”
When asked to describe the main effect of the Herbs Behind Bars competition, Sperry had a simple answer, “Pride. Those offenders take great pride in the results that the garden produces. I’ve actually seen medium and even close-custody offenders comment about how nice it looks.”