During harvest time here in Southern Maryland, farmer Perry Bowen Jr. gets a helping hand from work-release prisoners at the county jail.

Paid use of prison labor on private lands is not unheard of in rural America, but what makes this different is the farmer's other job. When he is not working on his farm, Bowen, 58, is a Calvert County circuit judge.

"I would say most are people I sentenced," said the judge, a tall man of some bulk who happily trades his judicial robes for work clothes and an International Harvester cap. And often, he said, he works alongside the prisoners.

"It's amazing how beneficial it is to see someone cutting kale alongside of you, who put you in jail," Bowen said. "I go to work and do my judging, and when I'm not doing that, I'm down here."

Bowen is one of two or three local farmers who regularly put jail inmates to work, according to Phyllis Lester, whom Bowen hired to direct the work-release program for sentenced criminals when a new jail opened in 1978.

At any one time, there are about 30 prisoners at the jail available for work-release. About half have been convicted of criminal charges. The rest are there for lesser offenses such as child support infractions.

The judge said he has used as many as three inmates at a time this autumn and has employed prisoners this way for several years. "I know of no other place where you're gonna find that," he said.

He laughs at rumors circulating around the county that he has a private work force from the jail. "If you believe everybody in the county who says he's worked for me, you'd think I had a crew in the thousands," he said. "Everybody stopped by the police says, 'By the way, I work for Judge Bowen.' "

"There's a different relationship between the people here and the government because it's such a small place," Bowen said. "I wish I did have the work to cover all the people who want to work. I wish we could get a couple more out of the jail."

In two decades on the bench, Bowen has developed a reputation as a police officer's judge. He is known for his country-style justice stemming from conservative views rooted in his native county.

Calvert County occupies a peninsula, with the Chesapeake Bay to its east and the Patuxent River to the west. With 34,638 residents, it has seen some population growth on its northern end, but the rest of the county has remained largely rural and unchanged over the years.

One of Bowen's colleages, Calvert County District Court Judge Larry Lamson, acknowledged that "it is very unusual" for a judge to use prisoners to do work for him. "But it seems stranger than it is," he said. "He thinks he's giving these people an opportunity to get out and make money. Me, I'm not a farmer. Most of my farming goes on at the Safeway. It's bad enough I have to see them in court when I go to work."

Joseph Norris, Maryland state court administrator, said he could not think of another instance in which a judge had personally hired work-release prisoners. He would not comment on the appropriateness of the practice.

Bowen said he sees "not a bit" of conflict of interest in having someone work for him who has or may, in the future, face him in court. "Anybody who doesn't want to work for me doesn't have to," he said. "I don't sentence them to Perry Bowen's farm under any circumstances . . . .

"But I'll tell you what I did one time. I had a man who wanted to work picking sugar corn. He and a couple of regular farm workers in the crew decided to have a pot party on the edge of the field when nobody was looking.

"But they got caught. He was coming up for reconsideration of his sentence. I granted his motion to have his sentence reduced . The other people had brought the stuff, and I figured he was a victim of circumstances. We kept him on and let him work."

The judge recalls one of his regular workers telling a newcomer who was giving him some lip, "I got a man standing beside me who can turn your name into nothing but numbers." Bowen said the worker was amazed to learn later that the man spearing tobacco in the field was a judge.

Like most farmers in Southern Maryland, the Bowens for generations raised tobacco. But Bowen has given up on the crop, which he says is a losing proposition, and for the second year, Bowen and his son, Perry 3d, are harvesting kale and collard greens for sale to markets as far away as Philadelphia.

Last week, one man, in jail for falling behind in his child support payments, was cutting kale on the Bowen farm, along with two other local men. They all received the same wage, a dollar a crate. Bowen pays either by the piece or the minimum wage.

The work-release prisoner was indistinguishable in appearance from the rest of the crew. He had been working for Bowen for five weeks, earning $55 to $60 a day, he said. "Contrary to what most people believe, Judge Bowen is one of the best people I've ever been associated with," the man said, out of Bowen's earshot.

Bowen returned the compliment: "He's a very well-spoken and intelligent man." The man, 42, is a heating and air-conditioning repairman by trade. He is at the farm weekdays from 6 in the morning to 6 at night.

Without a car of his own, he uses Bowen's pickup truck to commute between the farm and jail. Bowen lets him park the truck overnight at the county detention facility, then drive out the following morning.

"By and large, we pick people up and drop them off," Bowen said. "In this case, we make an exception, but it is real rare."

Larry Welch, who supervises the work-release program for lesser offenders, said that most prisoners under his supervision already have jobs to go to when they enter the program. Farm workers for hire are the exception, he said.

Lester says that farm work is not exactly what she wants her work-release prisoners to be doing.

"We're preparing people to return to the community," she said. "When I use Judge Bowen as an employer, it's so that they can make money to put gas in the car to look for a job. I want permanent work for them, but doing farm work beats doing no work at all."