With a big greenhouse already in place, the Montana Women's Prison is getting ready to start growing a lot of food.
Deputy Warden Bob Paul said an engineer who helped design the garden area estimated that the greenhouse and garden will produce enough vegetables to meet all of the prison's needs and still allow for the donation of 1 1/2 to 2 tons a year to the Billings Food Bank.
The 80-by-30-foot greenhouse was recently built just to the north of the prison, which is at 701 S. 27th St. Plans are to plant a 7,500-square-foot outdoor garden next spring, after the whole area is fenced off.
Paul said the garden will help offset food costs at the prison and provide a community service with the Food Bank donations.
"And then the ladies get involved, getting some life skills and vocational training," he said.
Last week, the Billings City Council agreed to vacate the alley behind the prison, selling it to the state for $20,772. Paul said the prison will have gates on either end of the alley but will not build on it, to preserve access to underground utilities.
A similar greenhouse and garden are planned for the Pine Hills Youth Correctional Facility in Miles City. Paul said the state allocated a total of $300,000 for both projects.
Behind the women's prison, the outdoor garden will be planted on the south side of the greenhouse. Most of the quarter block of prison-owned property north of the greenhouse will be left vacant for now.
Paul said the prison had hopes of building a warehouse on that portion of the property, but there is no funding for such a project on the horizon.
A man who lives across the street from the prison and happens to be an arborist suggested planting an orchard on the land, Paul said, and that's a possibility that the prison is considering.
Paul said the fence should be installed before winter, which is good news for the prison's food service director, Bill Peterson, who wants to get a few crops like spinach planted for early harvest.
"With a greenhouse, our growing season will be just about nine months," Paul said.
Closing the alley and fencing the property will also prevent people from getting too close to the rear of the prison yard. As it is, people have been known to walk down the alley and toss cellphones, cigarettes, cans of beer and other contraband over the fence.
The prison has already sunk a well that will provide water for irrigating the garden, and it will be used for watering the rest of the prison grounds, resulting in another cost savings, Paul said.
And though the main features of the project have been funded by the state, Paul said, the prison is still looking for donations of ground cover, weed barriers, wood chips and other supplies.
"If anybody's got donations or resources they want to dump into this, we'd appreciate it," he said.