Young Inmates Doing Thyme in the Prison Garden

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On a football-field-sized stretch of land beside the Walton County Jail in tiny Monroe, Ga., a tractor tiller turned weed-choked rows of red clay slowly, methodically, unleashing the earthy smell of hope and the clean, blank slate of spring. At the edge of the field, a group of men in black-and-white striped uniforms awaited instructions with a guard under an evergreen, its shade a promise of future luxury when the sure-to-be-blazing sun of a Southern summer makes working in the elements more of a challenge than on this crisp, cloudy morning.

A 22-year-old young man in the group breathed an audible sigh of relief when he saw DeDe Harris, the executive director of Walton Wellness and the heart and soul of this garden. She called his name, Jaylen, in recognition, and asked him how he was doing. He replied, “Better, now,” while smiling at her.

He took the first assignment she offered. When asked what he was doing, he replied, “I’m sorting through tomato stakes, separating the good ones from the bad.”

He then moved on to the ready-to-spread compost pile, where waste had been transformed into something wonderful for growing things. He thrust his shovel into the rich, black pile and filled a wheelbarrow a fellow inmate was carting to the freshly-tilled rows.

Life had taken a few twists and turns for Jaylen, including a motorcycle accident, the death of his brother, and two DUIs, the second of which counted as a probation violation and landed him behind bars. Jaylen, however, qualified for this work detail that got him out in the fresh air and enabled him to help kick off the third year of The Garden Project, where every vegetable grown is donated to local people in need, including low-income community members at a nearby dialysis center. Every day Jaylen spends working in the garden takes a day off his sentence. The other man (the one pushing the wheelbarrow) was in his early 20s as well, had returned to the jail recently, and was, in fact, the only one in the garden that day who had been there the year before. He could point to where the corn was, and the tomatoes, and the beans.

It’s no surprise that there were returning inmates.  The most recent study by the Pew Center for the States and the Association of State Correctional Administrators found the rate of recidivism (percentage of people released from prisons who are rearrested, convicted, or returned to custody within three years) to be 43.3 percent. What may be surprising, however, is that correctional facilities with a few years under their belt with a garden are finding not just reduced recidivism rates, but significantly reduced rates. According to the WorldWatch Institute, Sandusky County Jail in Ohio finds a recidivism rate of only 18 percent from those inmates who participate in its garden program, as opposed to 40 percent for those who don’t. Graduates of the Greenhouse Program at Rikers Island in New York City experience a 5-10 percent recidivism rate, as opposed to 65 percent in the general inmate population. Participants in The Garden Project at the San Francisco County Jail have a 24 percent recidivism rate, rather than 55 percent otherwise.

Gardening programs that involve people at even younger ages show promising positive effects in not only reducing recidivism but also helping youth avoid first-time offenses. Sidney Morgan, the Community Works Leader for the Department of Community Justice in Multnomah County, Ore., sees big changes in youth when they work in a garden. Morgan runs Project Sega (which means “to grow”) which provides youth on probation the opportunity to work on a quarter-acre garden to pay restitution for their offenses. Produce from this garden is sold at New Seasons supermarkets in the metro-Portland area, and the participating youth get the opportunity to plant, maintain, harvest from the garden, prep the food, and bring it to market. Morgan says New Seasons will even offer jobs to youth in Project Sega after they are done with probation.  Through Project Sega, Morgan claims they learn that they can be successful, and that crime is not their only option.

“I’ve been doing probation work for seven years, and I’ve never seen anything like the reaction and results we get from kids who participate in gardening,” Morgan exclaimed.

The early results are so promising that Morgan says the Portland Police Department is now planning on sending its recruits through the garden as part of its training.

Judy Elliott, the education and community empowerment coordinator of Denver Urban Gardens (DUG) joins Morgan in her belief in gardening as a way to reduce crime. Elliott interacts with at least a few dozen youth offenders and close to 200 at-risk children at a number of school community gardens in the metro-Denver area. These teens and younger children learn everything from building garden structures to integrated pest management, from running microenterprises to working with different ages and cultures, based on their interests and abilities. Elliott says that mostly, however, they learn they are valuable.

“The garden is a safe place to learn about responsibility, nurturing, ownership, engagement, consequences, trust, that things do go wrong but you can make them right, and that nothing — and no one — is junk, ” Elliott explained. “This provides them with a pride they may have never felt before in their lives, and it then has the potential to positively impact their actions.”

Josh Slotnick finds a similar effect. He is the director of Garden City Harvest in Missoula, Mont., and a lecturer in the Environmental Studies program at the University of Montana. A partnership with the Missoula Youth Drug Court brings a handful of youth offenders to work on the nine-acre farm on the university grounds each year.

“The youth offenders are fully integrated with university students on the farm, where they learn seasonally-appropriate crops, various harvesting techniques, post-harvest handling, and food preparation,” Slotnick explained, “but the common thread of their farm education is that they learn they are necessary. For many, they discover a feeling of personal empowerment and the value of being part of a larger community, and it becomes a reference point they use for making future positive decisions. In fact, one young man who went through our program got his GED and then joined the U.S. Armed Forces. He just came back from Iraq and told me that working on our farm was the best experience of his life.”

Many of those gardening now have never gardened before. If they are lucky, they may have seen their grandparents grow vegetables, since growing food for personal consumption has, in general, skipped not one but two generations. However, with the recent proliferation of school gardening (and vegetable gardening in general) in the United States, it is likely that new youth offenders within the next few years will increasingly have experience gardening. Perhaps there is even a chance that “learning they are necessary” at an earlier age will actually help to reduce first offenses. Only time will tell.

Taking a momentary break from working, Jaylen leaned on his shovel after hearing about how rain brings nitrogen from the sky to the soil and plants, and said he really likes science.

“I went to Emory University for awhile,” he said. “I wanted to be a doctor.”

His voice trailed off and he glanced at the jail building in the near distance, where hard-core prisoners not eligible for this work detail were corralled on a slab of concrete behind coiled barbed wire, watching the action in the garden intently.

When asked what kind of doctor he wanted to be, he snapped back to attention. “A pediatrician,” he answered, a bit more confidently than before. “I’d like to help children.”

And then he dug in to the job at hand once more.

Photos by DeDe Harris


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