It’s hot, lush and peaceful at the Waiawa Correctional Facility, a sprawling 195-acre property that looks out on the ridges of the Waianae mountain range.

Sweet corn, green onions, lettuce, tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, cabbage, beats and cherry tomatoes are grown by as many as a dozen inmates who work 35-hour weeks.

“It’s better than being caged up in Halawa. It’s hard to get sun,” said Ricky Kenui, who is in his early 40s and serving a 10-year prison term for stealing a van with tourists inside.

The facility is one of a few state prisons, along with the women’s prison in Kailua and the community correctional facilities on Oahu and Kauai, that have farms. Hawaii prisoners are growing 25 percent of the produce consumed at the state’s seven prisons, according to Toni Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Hawaii Department of Public Safety.

But some say the system could be doing more and that if inmates grew more of their own food it could bring down the cost of housing prisoners in Hawaii, making it possible to bring home some the 1,900 Hawaiians housed in Arizona, where it is cheaper for the state.

“The land is just sitting there going fallow,” said Glenn Martinez, a local farmer and owner of Olomana Gardens in Waimanalo, who has been outspoken about the benefits of expanding the farming programs.

Currently there are no initiatives to expand the programs that have shrunk over the years, but Gov. Neil Abercrombie has been a strong supporter of local food sustainability and bringing prisoners from the mainland home.

“During tough economic times there are a lot of initiatives that the Abercrombie administration has been moving forward on and this would fall in line with that,” said Donalyn Dela Cruz, the governor’s spokeswoman.

The low-security prison at Waiawa that houses 334 inmates is one example of where more could be done. Scott Harrington, the warden, said he envisioned raising cattle.

Formerly sugarcane land, the Waiawa farm includes an aquaponics portion that uses tilapia and catfish through a closed-cycle system to fertilize a vegetable garden. A wide diversity of crops are grown in the field below. But the farm has been scaled back from seven to four acres and its workers cut in half because of a lack of money.

Milton Saito, who runs the farm, said he was hoping to expand it, but doesn’t have enough funding from the state – he said he hoped private sources could step in.

In addition to providing fresh, local food for prisoners and reducing food costs, prisoners interviewed by Civil Beat said that they liked the work and the chance to be at Waiawa. The facility lacks the high walls, barbed fencing and guard towers of high-security prisons, and has an intensive drug treatment program and educational classes. Prisoners come to Waiawa as a reward for good behavior.

While pay at the farm is only 25 cents an hour, Tama Taosoga, another inmate who worked on the farm said that it felt good to be active.

“We’re lucky to be here,” he said. “It’s a privilege to be here really.”

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