When LeRoy LaCrosse gets a letter from home that tugs at his emotions, he knows where to go: the prison garden.

"You can be alone, say a prayer, get that peace of heart back," he said as he picked tomatoes, filling a plastic pail with ripe produce, on a plot at the state prison work camp in Willow River.

LaCrosse is counting down the days to his release next month. He has a roofing job lined up and has been accepted to technical school. He's eager "to get my life back" after serving time for a drug possession charge. "I've got five boys at home," he said.

During his time at Willow River, he's dropped 23 pounds and developed a "farmer tan" from gardening in his khaki uniform. But he's also changed in less visible ways: The boot-camp regimen, which includes marching in formation, military dress code and mandatory chores, has boosted his confidence and resolve, he said. And he's helped produce thousands of pounds of food for the prison kitchen. "With seven gardens, it's a lot of work, but it feels good," LaCrosse said. "This program is a blessing."

The veggie-growing renaissance that has transformed the landscape of urban neighborhoods and corporate campuses is also making its mark on correctional facilities.

Willow River, which started converting turf grass into gardens several years ago, is one of three state prisons with inmate-tended gardens; the others are in Red Wing and Togo, in Itasca County. Soon there may be more, thanks to a new state law encouraging gardens at other correctional facilities.

The statute, which took effect Aug. 1, directs the Minnesota Department of Corrections (DOC) to consider establishing gardens at facilities where space and security allow. The DOC is considering gardens at prisons in Lino Lakes and Faribault, said spokeswoman Sarah Berg. "Our first priority is treatment and education, but garden programs are a bonus."

At Willow River, about 15 prisoners signed up for garden duty this growing season; for a devoted core group, gardening has become much more than a way to fill time and get outside the barracks. It's a new passion, a new skill, a way to bond with others in constructive ways, inmates say.

"Gardening is a big part of my chemical-dependency treatment," said Greg Grund. "I've struggled with alcohol for a lot of years. One of the key components of finding sobriety is finding some good hobbies to take up idle time. It's something I'm going to use when I get out of here."

Jason Forcier, a first-time gardener, is looking forward to sharing his new horticultural know-how with family members after his release. "I'm going to learn how to extract seeds," he said. "My past sent me away from my family; this is an opportunity for me to give back to my family."

Willow River's CIP (Challenge Incarceration Program) focuses on life change, and tending a garden reinforces that, said Candy Adamczak, program director. "You have to keep at something to make it successful." she said.

And inmates in CIP, an early- release program, are motivated to get their lives on track. "These are guys nearing the end of their sentences," Berg said. "They're starting to look at that transition."

All the food grown at the prison goes to its kitchen, with excess donated to a local food shelf, said officer Dave Pursi. He coordinates the garden, pairing rookie gardeners with "guys who know what they're doing," and also confers with the prison cook on what to harvest when. "We try to keep up with what he wants," Pursi said.

The Willow River gardens, which include a variety of fruit trees, are on track to exceed the 5,000 pounds of food produced last year, Pursi said. The DOC sees some savings -- Berg estimated it at $2,700, in August and September when produce is harvested -- although that represents only a tiny sliver of the DOC's $11 million annual food budget. The cost of seeds and other supplies comes out of the offender work-crew budget.

Food to share

In Red Wing, the prison garden, dubbed "Hope Garden" by the men who tend it, donates its produce to a local food shelf and a women's shelter. Now in its second growing season, the garden was the brainchild of Red Wing resident Christine Aquino, who approached the prison and offered to mentor inmate gardeners.

Aquino was inspired to work with prisoners after a difficult time in her own life. A landscape professional, she had recently moved from California to Minnesota to be closer to relatives after she was found to have cancer.

"I had no money, no job; my insurance company dropped me," she said. Gardening became her therapy, and she wanted to share it. "I was disenfranchised, and the gentlemen here are disenfranchised, too," she said. "It was a big 'Aha!' moment."

Warden Kathy Halvorson was receptive to the idea. Gardening "takes commitment, dedication and focus," she said. "When [inmates] are back in society, knowing that they saw something through builds their confidence and a sense of accomplishment."

There's no state money involved at the Red Wing garden, which relies on donated seedlings and other community support, Aquino said. "A lot of eyes are on this project because it's so visible from the highway," she said. "Horns honk when they drive by."

This year, the prisoners doubled the garden's size and sometimes take part in delivering the produce to the food shelf.

"It's a positive thing," said inmate Nick Citrowske. "We're in such a negative place. Something like this builds character and shows a person there's more to life than just themselves."

Cory Schilling first signed up for garden duty "just to occupy time, to be active," he said. "But it turned into a great passion. Every time I'm out here, I learn something new."

Working with his fellow inmates in the garden has taught Schilling the meaning of true friendship, he said. His friends in the past were drinking buddies, but his buddies from the garden support his efforts to improve himself.

"We have very close bonds; we encourage each other. Three of us are taking college classes," he said.

Gardening also has given him a sense of purpose, Schilling said. "It sounds clichéd. But doing something for someone else, feeding hungry children ... it builds self-esteem. I had to come to prison to learn it, and I'm grateful for the lesson."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784