Inmates participating in a vocational training program at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility delivered 25 four-foot by six-foot garden bed frames Friday to the River and Roots Community Garden on West Main Street.

The wooden bed frames were built by inmates enrolled in the program, which is run by the jail and the Nassau-Suffolk Building Trades Council. 

The program began in 2003, said Angela DeVito of Jamesport, director of workforce development for the organization. It’s designed to prepare inmates for the workplace, she said. Inmates enrolled in the program spend nine weeks in the classroom and in hands-on training, learning skills such as carpentry and  plumbing, DeVito said. They sit for the national job readiness credential, which helps them find employment upon release from jail. The program works with them for a two-year period following their release, she said.

The vocational training program has a huge impact on recidivism rates, Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco said as he watched inmates off-load the wood-frame garden beds from a truck at the community garden site this morning.

“Eighty percent of the inmates that come to jail come back to jail,” DeMarco said. “We want to change that and the recidivism rate drops tremendously for inmates that participate in this program,” he said. “We give them a trade, and it helps them become a productive member of society.”

DeMarco said the program also helps inmates pay a debt to society. “It’s free labor, it helps beautify the community at no taxpayer expense,” the sheriff said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Inmates have built doghouses for animal shelters, adirondack chairs for nursing homes, flower boxes, benches and birdhouses, said Sgt. Joe O’Malley. The inmates are currently building two large steel and aluminum greenhouses for the jail, which will be utilized to teach inmates about growing plants. They will grow vegetables for the jail and flowers for community beautification programs, O’Malley said.

“This is a great program,” said inmate Jay Topczewski, who is nearing graduation, as he unloaded the garden beds.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to help the community,” agreed Ray Winter, another inmate, as he unloaded the garden beds with fellow inmate Errol Whittaker.

To become eligible for the program, inmates go through a strict screening process, said building trades council instructor Tom Connolly.

River and Roots co-founders Amy Davidson and Laurie Nigro were on hand for this morning’s delivery. The pair found out about the inmate program from BID president Ray Pickersgill, Davidson said. They reached out to DeVito, who made the project happen.

“It’s amazing how so many different parts of this community have come together and made the garden better than I’d imagined,” Davidson said.

“I had hoped we’d get the community’s support,” added Nigro. “But I just figured people would say, yeah, OK, crazy ladies…” She laughed. “I won’t say I’m shocked by all the support we’ve gotten, because I believe in Riverhead. That’s why we moved here. But I am pleasantly ecstatic,” Nigro said.

The gardeners have even had the unexpected assistance of some of the men hanging out in the area, who decided to pitch in and help shovel compost after it was delivered this week.

“It’s just been great, all the way around,” Nigro said.


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