Gar­den­ing makes a come­back in U.S. pri­son sys­tems


WESTOVER, Md. — Don Vass, an ad­mit­ted drug dealer, pulls a cab­bage from the ground, then hands it to Wal­ter Labord, a con­victed mur­derer.

They are gar­den­ing be­hind soar­ing brick walls at Mary­land’s largest pen­i­ten­tiary, where a group of in­mates has trans­formed the pri­son yard into a thriv­ing patch of straw­ber­ries, squash, egg­plant, let­tuce and pep­pers — just no fiery ha­baneros, which could be used to make pep­per spray.

It’s plant­ing sea­son be­hind bars, where of­fi­cials from San Quentin in Cal­i­for­nia to Rik­ers Is­land in New York have turned dusty patches into pow­er­ful metaphors for re­birth. The idea — trans­form so­ci­ety’s worst by teach­ing them how things bloom — heads of cab­bage, flow­ers, in­mates them­selves.

“Th­ese guys have prob­a­bly never seen some­thing grow out of the ground,” says Kath­leen Green, the war­den at Eastern Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion, watch­ing her in­mates till the soil. “This is pow­er­ful stuff for them.”

And they are lining up for the priv­i­lege of work­ing 10-hour days in the dirt and heat.

Gar­dens were a sta­ple of pri­son life decades ago — Al­ca­traz had a lovely one — but ex­perts say many dis­ap­peared in the 1970s as lock-’em-up-and-throw-away- the-key jus­tice took hold. As some cor­rec­tions sys­tems veer back to­ward re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion, prisons with­out gar­dens are scram­bling to start them, con­tact­ing non-profit such as the In­sight Gar­den Pro­gram, which runs Cal­i­for­nia’s pri­son gar­dens and is ex­pand­ing na­tion­wide.

“The de­mand is huge,” says Beth Waitkus, the pro­gram’s direc­tor. “Prisons see the value of this. When you have to tend to a living thing, there’s a shift that hap­pens in a per­son.”

Some prisons are us­ing the food to feed in­mates, part of a green move­ment in cor­rec­tions to save money, both in op­er­at­ing ex­penses and health-care costs, with many in­mates suf­fer­ing from di­a­betes and high blood pres­sure.

Food qual­ity is typ­i­cally at the top of the food chain of prisoner com­plaints.

Other prisons do­nate the food to the poor, a pow­er­ful form of restora­tive jus­tice where in­mates help peo­ple living in sit­u­a­tions very much like where they came from.

The Eastern Cor­rec­tional pris­on­ers are grow­ing food for their neigh­bours in Som­er­set County on Mary­land’s Eastern Shore, which has some of the high­est poverty and child­hood obe­sity rates in the state.

Last year’s to­tal: five tons. And the gar­den is off to a good start this sea­son. As the war­den walks by, Mau­rice Jones, serv­ing seven years for theft in Bal­ti­more, drives a wheel­bar­row over to help with the cab­bage. Vass holds one up; it’s firm and leafy.

“Those look good,” the war­den says.

And it makes the in­mates feel good, too.

“It makes it feel like you still have it in you to do some­thing good,” says Labord, now 39 and serv­ing a life sen­tence for an armed rob­bery and mur­der back when he was a teenager.

Be­fore he got into trou­ble, he used to work with his grandma at a church hand­ing out food to the poor. “It felt good,” he says. “Now, I’m giv­ing back again.”

While Labord might never see an­other free day in his life, most pris­on­ers do get out. Cor­rec­tions of­fi­cials think gar­den­ing is one way to keep them from com­ing back. Early stud­ies of gar­den­ing pro­grams in Cal­i­for­nia prisons found that less than 10 per cent of par­tic­i­pants re­turned to pri­son or jail, a dra­matic im­prove­ment from the Na­tional In­sti­tute of Jus­tice’s U.S. rate of more than 60 per cent.

Ex­perts say that gar­den­ing pro­vides ca­reer op­por­tu­ni­ties on the out­side for ex-con­victs with low job skills and that work­ing with na­ture calms the soul and helps them jet­ti­son crim­i­nal be­hav­iour. The In­sight Gar­den Pro­gram’s cur­ricu­lum in­cludes class­room lessons on ecol­ogy, emo­tional in­tel­li­gence and lead­er­ship.

Whole new worlds are opened. Pris­on­ers at Eastern Cor­rec­tional say they watch gar­den­ing shows on public TV in their cells. “You want to just learn ev­ery­thing,” says Ed­ward Car­roll, 43, con­victed on drug charges. He has eight books in his cell — six gar­den­ing man­u­als and two Bibles.


At Mary­land’s Eastern Cor­rec­tional In­sti­tu­tion, a gar­den­ing pro­gram is part of a na­tion­wide re­turn to re­ha­bil­i­ta­tive agri­cul­ture, ben­e­fit­ing in­mates as well as the re­cip­i­ents of their gar­den­ing prow­ess.


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