PIKEVILLE, Tenn. -- A cloudless sky overhead, freshly turned soil beneath their orange flip-flops and Crocs, a dozen inmates at the Bledsoe County Detention Center pick clumps of grass and rocks from the dirt to ready the jail's first garden for planting.
The prisoners, all nonviolent offenders who have good behavior reports, talk excitedly about having a garden to tend and the vegetables they hope to plant.
Cody Leach, 18, from Franklin County, said the garden will give prisoners productive work and help lighten the local tax burden by producing food for the jail's 90 to 100 inmates.
"It's good to get out of the jail and get a little bit of freedom and help Bledsoe County out," Leach said.
Bledsoe County Sheriff Jimmy Morris, a lifelong farmer who was elected sheriff almost six years ago, took his tractor to the jail last week to plow a couple of acres of good Sequatchie Valley bottom land next to the jail. Morris said the garden will give inmates something to look forward to and they'll learn a little about producing food from the soil in the process.
The outside work is good for inmates' morale, too, Leach said.
"You can get some fresh air, feel different. You don't feel so violent all the time," he said. "There ain't nothing like being outside when you're in jail. It's good to get out and get your legs moving."
Morris said his family -- brother, Lee; father, Randall; and son, Mike -- farms about 1,000 acres in Bledsoe County, but the sheriff's eyes are on the two-acre, city-owned plot by the jail.
"We're planting 250 pounds of seed potatoes, and we'll probably have five or six rows of green beans, and squash, okra, cucumber, tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli, onions," he said.
Turning to a prisoner, he instructed, "You want to plant them 'taters about every six to eight inches and be sure the eyes are up. Pull about four or five inches of dirt over them."
Morris said he's trying to pass along his farming knowledge to those who seem to like the work.
"These guys are really interested in this garden. It's something for them to look forward to and [they like] eating their own food that they grew," he said.
The sheriff hopes the garden can cut down food costs, but he said it'll take a while to figure out how much impact the homegrown veggies will have.
Inmate Tyrone McDowell, 18, of Chattanooga, was working his second day in the garden. He'd worked before in the garden at Taft Youth Development Center, on the mountain about 20 miles west of Pikeville.
"It's good to get people out here to do it," McDowell said.
"It's more freedom than you'd think it would be," he said with a lingering glance at the sky.
The garden is good for the prisoners and "keeps them out of trouble. It's having something to look forward to doing," he said. "I'm hoping we plant a little bit of everything."
He said he'd like to find work in agriculture when he's released in October.
Sgt. Dan Hodge, who was watching over the gardeners, said the inmates will be supervised by at least two officers while they work the soil.
Hodge predicts the garden will be a success for the inmates because "it gives them something productive to do."
The garden is a "de-stresser," he said.
"Just for them to nurture plants will help them ease the stress," Hodge said. "I think there's benefits all the way around with this [garden]."
A pair of local residents chatting last week on Cumberland Avenue in Pikeville said the garden is a good idea.
Newell Angel said inmates should benefit from learning to help themselves as they pay their debts to the public.
"I think anybody that broken the law, if they can, they ought to take the burden off the county as much as they can," he said.
Reece Noble said it's good for the inmates to get some fresh air, too.
"It might give those boys some hope for the future," he said.
Ben Benton is a news reporter at the Chattanooga Times Free Press. He covers Southeast Tennessee and previously covered North Georgia education. Ben has worked at the Times Free Press since November 2005, first covering Bledsoe and Sequatchie counties and later adding Marion, Grundy and other counties in the northern and western edges of the region to his coverage. He was born and raised in Cleveland, Tenn., a graduate of Bradley Central High School. Benton ...