Inmate Preston Burke takes a chicken to shelter as a storm approaches. The poultry brood produced 600 pounds of meat last year.
FREMONT -- Sandusky County Sheriff Kyle Overmyer has heard the laughter, shrugged off the "jail bird" jokes, and happily restocked his jail's chicken coop for a second season.
"People laughed at me, laughed about the idea of the chickens, but it turned out to be something that actually worked," he said.
For the second summer in a row, inmates at the Sandusky County jail are raising a small brood of chickens -- 60 White Mountain Broilers that are almost ready for butchering -- in a small coop in a fenced-in area behind the sheriff's office. Beyond the coop is a lush green vegetable garden where inmates raise crops ranging from sweet corn to cantaloupe for the jail's kitchen.
Sheriff Overmyer said that because vegetable seeds, chicken feed, and all expenses are covered by donations, the miniature farm saves the county thousands of dollars a year. "I'm very blessed with what kind of citizens we have in Sandusky County, to donate the money to take a dream and make it a reality," he said.
Judy Rapp, the jail's kitchen manager, conceded she wasn't thrilled with the idea of homegrown produce when inmates planted the first garden three years ago, because it meant more work for her and her small staff.
"The first year, they didn't know what they were doing. They had everything coming at us at one time," she said. "Now it comes in cycles. That helps out, but the first year killed us."
The inmates get to eat fresh vegetables in dishes some have never tasted, such as a salad of fresh cucumbers and onions from the garden.
"We never had corn on the cob here before," Ms. Rapp said. "It was always right out of the can."
The chicken raised by the inmates is especially lean and tasty. Last year, the 100 chickens produced nearly 600 pounds of meat for the jail's kitchen.
"We had it about once a week -- creamed chicken over biscuits, chicken salad for supper meals, chicken and noodles," she said.
The evening meal these days has been sandwich, chips, fruit, and dessert.
Sheriff Overmyer, who took office in September, 2008, after the death of David Gangwer, said that because of the economic downturn he had to cut about $200,000 out of his budget almost immediately after being sworn in.
He said he took a look in the kitchen and saw that the county was feeding inmates brand-name cereal, sausages and pancakes with maple syrup, and all the coffee they could drink. He made some quick changes -- no coffee, no red meat, generic cereal, one hot meal a day, at noon.
"They brown-bag it in the evening, and I don't even let them have a brown bag because I'm so frugal," the sheriff said.
He also took aim at medical costs, such as by taking basketballs away because so many inmates were twisting ankles when shooting hoops.
"If there's a way for me to avoid laying off deputies at the sheriff's office, I'll do it," Sheriff Overmyer said. "My duty is to protect and serve the citizens of Sandusky County. It's important for me to be frugal with the taxpayers' money.
"Besides, this is not a hotel. It's a correctional facility. It's not supposed to be fun."
Sandusky County Jail inmates Mike Perin, left, and John Smith pick broccoli in the prison garden Monday, in Fremont, Ohio.
The savings in food costs -- an estimated $25,000 in 2009 -- the department is down from 64 employees in 2008 to 52 currently.
As community work program coordinator for the sheriff's office, Deputy Jim Seaman's salary is covered by a Community Development Block Grant. He oversees the work program that allows nonviolent offenders to volunteer to work in the jail's garden as well as out in the community -- mowing county lawns, trimming around headstones at township cemeteries, and similar chores. In exchange for their work, inmates get time shaved off their sentences.
Deputy Seaman said it's a good deal for everyone, taxpayers included.
Because the jail's 1.5-acre garden at times produces more than the jail can handle, he said the sheriff's office donated about 375 pounds of produce to local food pantries and soup kitchens last year. It hopes to increase its storage space soon, though, with the donation of a walk-in cooler that will be situated outside the jail kitchen, Deputy Seaman said.
Ms. Rapp said the jail's garden produced so many tomatoes the first year that her staff made and froze tomato sauce. They had "terrific" raspberries this year that were mixed with other fruit for fruit salad.
Recently they've been dicing and freezing green peppers for future recipes. Squash, peas, green beans, and banana peppers are coming in too.
Sheriff Overmyer said the garden -- and the chickens -- help the bottom line, and may help the inmates, too.
"I started it due to the economic troubles we were facing, but it's turned into a rehabilitation thing too," the sheriff said. "I think they learn a life lesson here. When you watch a seed grow into something, it's an end process. So many of these guys have started things in life and never finished them."
Contact Jennifer Feehan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6129.