Stonington — Prisoners from Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center in Montville picked an estimated 1,000 pounds of potatoes Thursday morning at the John "Whit" Davis farm off Greenhaven Road, helping the 88-year-old farmer and the community at the same time.
"He can't do it all anymore," said Patrick Kelley, co-founder with David Fairman of the Eastern Connecticut Community Gardens Association and one of the organizers of the event. "This keeps him afloat."
Much of the produce taken from the Davis farm was donated to the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center.
The gardens association, which has a presence online as GetGrowingCT.org, also provided volunteer muscle, along with the help of an early-offender program called Community Solutions Inc., to remove a truckload of seaweed from a residence at Lords Point. The sea vegetation, high in mineral content, was hauled back to Montville to be used as compost in the prison's three gardens totaling an acre in size.
"It's a circle of philanthropy," Kelley said.
The half-dozen inmates from the combined maximum- and medium-security prison, who used pickaxes and pitch forks to harvest three varieties of potato, said they enjoyed working outside on the 400-acre farm and felt they were learning new skills from one of the legends of Connecticut farming.
Davis himself made an appearance, straw hat shielding him from the bright sunshine as a cool breeze made laboring in the fields tolerable. Davis leaned over a patch of beets, some as big as softballs, and regaled prison correction officer Joe Schoonmaker and Warden Scott Erfe with tips about how to cook the vegetables.
"That'll feed four people — that big one," Davis advised. "You'd have to boil them two, 2½ hours, but a pressure cooker gets right into them. ... The small ones will cook in 20 to 25 minutes, but the big ones will take 40 to 45 minutes."
Schoonmaker said prisoners from Corrigan-Radgowski are out in the community at least once a week helping with projects suggested by various local towns. The inmates are handpicked based on good behavior and the seriousness of their crimes.
"They love being outside," Erfe said.
Andrius Banevicius, a spokesman for the state Department of Correction, said Connecticut's prison system has about eight other garden programs, part of a plan to save money and encourage sustainability.
The gardens, along with a new horse-certification program, can be a calming influence on prisoners, officials added.
"It gives them a sense of purpose and teaches them marketable skills," Banevicius said.
Schoonmaker, who oversees the gardening program at Corrigan-Radgowski, said prisoners already have harvested about 8,000 pounds of produce so far this year, half of which is donated to local food pantries and programs and half of which is used to feed the inmates.
He expects between 10,000 and 11,000 pounds of food to come out of the gardens by the end of the season, including squash, zucchini, cucumbers, beans, cabbage, pumpkins and cherry tomatoes.
Skills learned during their excursion to the Davis farm will allow the prison to add potatoes to its crop next year, Schoonmaker said.
"This is the best way to learn — from a master gardener," he said.