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Herb gardens have offenders growing thyme while doing time

Pete Alfaro sitting at table looking through a book.
Lee College Regent Pete Alfaro looks through a portfolio submitted by a unit competing in the 2nd Annual Statewide Herb Garden Judging Contest.

Photo by David Nunnelee

Some offenders are growing thyme while doing time in Texas.

Thyme, an aromatic shrub used to season such dishes as eggs, lima beans, potatoes and poultry, is just one of the herbs being grown in small gardens at nearly 100 TDCJ units across the state. And for the past two years, the most productive of the springtime gardens have been recognized by Lee College through a statewide judging contest.

This year, the herb garden at the Ellis Unit outside Huntsville was named grand champion by the six judges, who included Lee College President Dennis Topper and Windham School District Superintendent Debbie Roberts, while the Eastham Unit near Lovelady took reserve champion honors. The top two gardens were selected from among 12 regional winners that also included gardens at the Estelle, Michael, Skyview, Clements, Wallace, Ferguson, Roach, Dalhart, Lewis and Daniel units.

The planting and judging of herb gardens is a joint project between Lee College and TDCJ’s Food Service, Laundry & Supply department. Lee College donated seed to 96 TDCJ facilities this past year in the hopes that the herbs would be used to flavor foods served to both offenders and staff.

“This is all about improving the quality of food in the prisons,” said J.T. Langley, Lee College horticultural instructor at Ellis for 31 years. “By the Food Service department going into a project like this with Lee College, it will enhance what we’re trying to do with food. I’d rather see every bit of the food on a unit consumed than some of it being hauled off as waste.”

Nearly 20 different varieties of herbs are now being grown at TDCJ facilities, with cilantro, an annual plant commonly used in beans, salsa and different Mexican and Asian dishes being the most popular, Langley said. Other favorite herbs include basil, garlic and onion chives, lemon balm, oregano, sage, rosemary and, of course, thyme.

“We grow the herbs that would most likely fit the foods served in prison,” Langley said. “Cilantro, for example. We serve a lot of beans in prison, and you can change the flavor of the beans and Mexican foods we serve with it. Lemon balm is a fragrant herb that can be used in some of the dry cakes fixed in the unit kitchens. Rosemary, meanwhile, will change the whole direction of a chicken’s flavor.”

Langley said the herb gardens are planted within the prison compound in plots of various sizes. Yet even a small unit garden can produce enough herbs to replace those that might otherwise be purchased from outside vendors, he said.

About 20 of the units provided seed this year entered the statewide contest. Each provided judges with a notebook containing planting data and color photographs of the growing herbs. Langley said judges look at what herbs are being grown at the participating units, how they are being grown, how much is being grown and what they’re being used for.

“What we’re trying to do is determine if the unit is really benefiting from this,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot of success with it.”

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