BCI inmates lend a hand landscaping

T-L Photo/ROBERT A. DEFRANK Inmates from Belmont Correctional Institution work Tuesday tending to trees outside the St. Clairsville Community Garden after tilling the soil and cleaning up inside the fenced-in area. The prison offers free landscape services to municipalities and nonprofit organizations.

ST. CLAIRSVILLE — Inmates from Belmont Correctional Institution were hard at work last week preparing St. Clairsville’s community garden for planting this year, benefiting the community and developing skills for life outside prison.

Mike Sechrest, program instructor through Ohio Central School Systems, which covers all of the state’s prisons, brought out two crews of about seven inmates. He said the inmates are studying horticulture, turf and landscape.

“It’s a one-year program,” he said, adding that the inmates complete 600 hours f study in one year. “They also test for a state certification in the winter. During the winter we do book work in the prison. They take the state test through the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association. This past winter, we had 100 percent passing rate on that exam.”

Sechrest said there are usually about 14 inmates in a yearly class.

“Leaving prison with the certification gives them a great opportunity at employment within the field, once getting released,” Sechrest said, adding that such programs can both assist inmates in transitioning to outside life and reduce recidivism by enabling them to pursue honest work.

“It gives them an avenue of employment,” he said, adding that the minimum-security inmates are happy for the chance to work outside the prison. “Once they finish with the program, they’re going home shortly after.”

Three inmates completing their final month said they believed the program would profit them on release.

“We learned quite a bit,” Richard Uran, scheduled to be released in June, said.

“Prior to the program I honestly didn’t know much about landscaping. … It opens up quite a bit of doors as far as anything in landscaping, gardening, mowing. Anything in the green industry.”

He added that he has prospective employment at a landscape company on release.

Joe Kuralt, who is scheduled to be released in December, commented on the tools and equipment provided.

“We had tools for everything. Anything we needed, we had tools to use and we got to use them,” he said, pointing out a motor-driven edger and weed trimmers. He added that they also train on lawn mowers.

“We actually learned what the plants are. We learned what plants to put in landscapes, where they go and why they go there, and I think that’s going to be a huge skill.”

“They taught us good leadership skills — the ability to work with others and keep our work ethic going,” Alex Porter, also scheduled to be released in June, said.

In addition, Sechrest said they complete about 3,500 community service hours per year during the growing season.

“We work in the community from April to mid-December,” he said, adding that they provide service to municipalities and nonprofit agencies in Belmont County can utilize the free program.

“They cleaned up the garden and tilled the beds. We still have beds for rent,” Betty Love, president of the garden club organization, said. “They help a lot. … They do a lot of service for the community.”

Love added that the program is vital to opening the garden every year.

“A lot of the folks who rent spaces are older,” she said. “It helps us.”

She added that anyone is welcome to cultivate annual plants, including vegetables and flowers.

“We don’t have enough people to rent spaces. There’s only about six people. We need more people to keep this going because it’s a good thing for the town to have this,” she said.

Love said the cost of a small bed is $15 while a long bed is $30.

“They’re 40 feet long, and the small ones are 20 feet long, by 4 feet wide,” Love said.

Anyone interested in renting a bed during the summer can call Love at 412-951-4390.

For more information about the labor program, call 740-695-5169.