Going to the county farm may sound more like penal servitude than the road to recovery from a life of crime. But for some residents of the Maine Coastal Regional Reentry Center, a newly cultivated garden plot in Swanville has been an important part of getting with the program.

Waldo County Commissioner William Shorey, with the help of volunteer Randy Doak, started the garden this spring on a five-acre parcel of farmland on Route 141, rented by the county for $500 per year.

The garden was pitched as a supplement to the programming at MCRRC. Residents would cultivate food for their own consumption, but they would also be able to donate a portion of the harvest to local food cupboards, effectively giving something back to the community.

This idea has not been lost on the residents.

Mike Cromwell, an affable and well-spoken 40-something-year-old who is finishing a sentence for, as he described it, “drunk driving and high-speed chases,” was one of four MCRRC residents pulling weeds around an acre’s worth of young vegetable plants on June 23.

“We love our garden,” Cromwell said, with evident enthusiasm. “I initially thought coming out and weeding would suck, but I really enjoy it. It’s really relaxing. It feels good getting your hands dirty.”

The three other residents working in the fields that morning gathered around Cromwell. They were happy to talk about the garden, but conversation soon turned to public perception of the re-entry center and its residents.

The center opened to high hopes and a certain amount of fanfare in January. But news in recent weeks has been less favorable. A recent graduate of MCRRC told VillageSoup last month that he believed most of the residents were in the program for a free ride. Days after the interview, two MCRRC residents were sent back to jail after being caught with prescription painkillers.

“People have a misconception that we get what we want, that we get free passes,” said Lauren MacArthur, who was working at the county garden June 23. “But you gotta earn them.”

MCRRC was created last year, during the statewide consolidation of state and county corrections systems under a joint board of corrections. Waldo County Sheriff Scott Story, who serves on the Board of Corrections, successfully lobbied to convert the former Waldo County Jail to a pre-release center.

MCRRC is considered a pilot program. The facility currently has 13 residents, with officials anticipating a gradual increase to the maximum of 32.

The major focus of the re-entry center, from a systemic perspective, has been to reduce the state’s high recidivism rate by giving former inmates a wealth of support services prior to their release, from counseling to education and job placement. Residents are chosen for the program based, in part, on a perceived risk of returning to jail. In the case of the residents at the county garden on June 23, all four had been behind bars at least once before their current sentence.

“I’ve been locked up for almost six years,” MacArthur said. “It would have been a shock [returning directly to the community]. It took me a month just to get used to riding in a vehicle without getting carsick.”

“You always come out worse from prison,” Cromwell said. “They say that what you’ve done is wrong, but they don’t say why.”

None of the residents at the garden June 23 had done much in the way of gardening before, but they seemed to be genuinely grateful for the experience and proud of the work they had done. There were frequent mentions of “giving back,” to the community, and the former inmates seemed to want to get it right this time.

“They’re not fronting it,” said Michael Tausek, programming director at MCRRC. “They’ve taken ownership of the program.”

Tausek said the residents of MCRRC were keenly aware of the public perception of the program, and the comments by former resident Charles Brown stung.

“They feel hurt because they’re really committed to the program and want it to do well,” Tausek said. “For them to personalize a program is incredible.”

Out on Route 141 a pickup truck drove by and someone shouted out the window, “Get back to work!” though it wasn’t clear in what spirit it was meant. The residents had been working shirtless under a hot sun for two hours and it was time for lunch. If the weather was good, they would return in a week.

MCRRC residents have been working in the new garden since the spring. Among the roughly one mile of plantings are beans, peas, corn, summer and winter squash, potatoes, tomatoes, beets, spinach and cabbage. There are 1,000 feet of pumpkins and Shorey said he could imagine giving these away to children for carving into jack-o-lanterns in the fall.

Shorey said he had heard a lot of positive feedback about the garden, and he suspected Waldo County would see service gardens like this one from other organizations in the near future.

“What better way to help those out who are more challenged than us,” he said.