This article was originally posted on the New England Grassroots Environment Fund website. It shows the importance and value of farming skills, and how gardening can create a strong community, even in correctional facilities.
Picture this. Inmates, who are serving life sentences without the chance for parole, tenderly caring for a vegetable garden.
Thanks to two women with Garden Time, Inc., that’s exactly what has been happening at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institution (ACI) in Cranston for the past several years.
“It’s incredibly rewarding,” Garden Time co-founder Kate Lacouture said. “When we started, we had this idea that we would get funding right away and we wouldn’t do this unless we were getting paid. What my partner, Vera (Bowen), and I realized recently, we would continue to do this forever as volunteers because we love it so much.”
Initially, Garden Time was most interested in working with the women in minimum security because that sounded “nice, easy and safe” according to Lacouture. But the women were in the process of moving into a new facility and were in no position to start a garden program. So instead, they got the opposite end of the spectrum – lifers without parole.
That might seem like a daunting task for some or others might wonder why lifers without parole deserve the privilege of gardening. The correction officers certainly weren’t thrilled with the idea initially because of security risks. However, the warden of the men’s maximum security prison and the director of programs were on board, mainly because these prisoners had limited options for activities since lifers without parole aren’t allowed to take classes.
Lacouture said even most of the correction officers have changed their views of the gardening program since it started in 2010.
“This will be our fourth year at max, so they know we’re serious and not a security risk. They’ve come around and we feed them well. We pay them off with fresh strawberries and tomatoes,” Lacouture joked.
Lacouture admittedly was a little nervous at first dealing with maximum security inmates. There was an adjustment period getting used to going through all the security and hearing the slam of metal doors closing. Lacouture also had to deal with the fact that she grew to enjoy spending time with these people, but she was sad that they were stuck in prison and she could go home to her family each day.
“It’s really a life-changing experience and really eye-opening that aside from the fact they did something really horrible at some point in their lives, they seem like really nice guys. They’re funny and they’re smart. It’s fun to be with them,” Lacouture said. “I sort of marvel at it at times when I’m walking across the yard and there are 400 people out playing in the yard. It’s kind of amazing we’re in this environment. The problem hasn’t been feeling unsafe. The problem has been us feeling too comfortable, and the captain and the warden are always reminding us to remember where we are.”
Because of the success at the maximum security facility, it was an easy transition to start a garden at the women’s minimum security prison. Around 15 men and 20 women participate in the respective garden programs.
“The men at max love it because it’s the only thing they get to do. It’s a pretty big privilege because they also get to eat the food out there,” Lacouture said. “It’s also a job training program because we’re teaching them as much as we can about growing, nutrition, organic food and everything we can think of. We have to be quick with the women because their sentences are so short, and they’re always leaving.”
Garden Time received a $1,000 Seed grant from the New England Grassroots Environment Fund earlier this year in order to start a new venture – an herb garden at the John J. Moran medium security prison that houses 1,200 inmates. Lacouture said the sentences these inmates are serving fits their program the best because the inmates will be around long enough to learn many skills and they will also be released from prison eventually. The skills the inmates learn in the garden program could help them land jobs in agriculture when they get out.
This spring, Garden Time worked with the medium security inmates in order to plan and design the herb garden until it was warm enough to work outside. Teaching inmates about herbs and allowing them to decide what to grow allows them to feel ownership of the garden from the beginning. The group spends about two hours at each location and will be at all three facilities on Tuesdays and at max Friday mornings.
At max, the kitchen can incorporate what is grown in the garden into the menu for all 400 inmates, but wouldn’t be able to do the same thing for the 1,200 inmates at the medium security facility. That was the reason for choosing an herb garden. The inmates will still learn to grow food, and the kitchen will also be able to use herbs for seasoning since it only uses salt to flavor food.
Garden Time also has plans to start a garden at the men’s minimum security prison once an unrelated construction project is complete.
Lacouture and Bowen aren’t satisfied with only helping inmates while they’re incarcerated. They plan on applying for a large federal grant next year in order to start an organic farm where people who are looking for a job after being released from prison can find work and help them transition back into the real world and hopefully cut down on recidivism rates. According to a 2011 survey by the Pew Center on the States, over 40% of inmates released from prison, return within three years.
“We’ve definitely had women who got out and were interested in getting a job in the business. We have our first guy from max who is getting out, and we’ve been trying to help him get connected in the world of landscaping and gardening,” Lacouture said. “Our plan is to have this farm and job training on the outside. That will take quite a bit of effort, but it’s exciting and I think it’s necessary.”