Organic Gardening Takes Root in New York Prison System

Orange is the New Black” is a popular Netflix series that’s the focus of a lot of online discussion these days. In it, we see many realistic (and unrealistic) portrayals of what life is like in an upstate New York penitentiary. Of all the privileges enjoyed by the show’s cast of characters, gardening is absent. Surprisingly, it’s the one of the few prisoner activities that wouldn’t be fictional.

At Woodbourne, a medium-security men’s prison situated in Sullivan County, New York, the outdoor yard is home to a sizeable organic garden. The only organic prison garden in the New York Department of Corrections, the area serves as a classroom for the Bard Prison Initiative, a program that gives inmates the chance to earn liberal arts college degrees behind bars. According to ModernFarmer.com, the Woodbourne garden anchors “a focus on food justice and nutrition in the public health program.”

For those in the program, the impact of the garden is palpable. Inmates who might otherwise have spent their time watching television or brooding about past regrets can now be seen outdoors, hands in the dirt, beaming with pride over the produce they’ve helped to grow.

Instead of wasting money on Honey Buns and Doritos in the prison commissary, those learning the ins-and-outs of organic farming now snack on cherry tomatoes and perfect their own pumpkin pie recipes.

From Modern Farmer:

Now you’ve got all these guys like, “Hook me up with some of them kale chips!” says Jocelyn Apicello, a visiting public health professor at the prison.

By comparison, every meal in the prison cafeteria comes from pre-made meal baggies, frozen for up to seven years before microwave reheating. The contrast is severe. “Before (the Bard garden), I can’t remember the last time I ate a fresh vegetable,” says inmate Anthony Rose, who’s been locked up since 1992.

Max Kenner, BPI’s founder and director, never refers to the program as vocational training. Rather, he hopes that access to the garden will expand inmate’s imaginations and reinforce the good behavior that allowed them to experience it in the first place. It’s not an empty hope. A variety of scientific studies have suggested a link between gardening and good mental health. There’s also no denying that those who graduate from the program leave prison with a valuable new skill.

Bill Jett, a convicted murderer and arsonist, was one of the first inmate gardeners at Woodbourne. Released in 2011, the education he received while in prison allowed him to attain something few violent prisoners have a chance at: a job. Jett now works full-time for GrowNYC, the nonprofit in charge of New York’s farmers’ markets.

Image via Bard Prison Initiative

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110 comments

Robert German
Past Member 1 years ago

A great job you have already done. I’m really delighted to see your amazing work.
Full In The Blonde Article

Jonathan Tan
Jonathan Tan2 years ago

This would inspire more of those who really want changes in one's facility. These inmates show how to value health and make it a hobby inside the state prison. A good way to set a great program for prisons.

If you want to share your ideas and tips here is a social site for gardening http://happyhouseandgarden.com/

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago

All prisons should raise their own food. They used to do it. That would make it far less expensive to house the inmates and teach them some kind of skill too.

Donna Ferguson
Donna F.2 years ago

wow! wonderful. a prison that concentrates on rehabilitation instead of punishment.

Margaret Goodman
Margaret Goodman2 years ago

I wonder if the inmates are trained so that they can start community gardens once they're released.

KAREN G.

Thank you for sharing

Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper2 years ago

interesting

Sonali G.
Sonali G.2 years ago

gardening and growing your own food is a wonderful hobby and skill. Very therapeutic and rewarding. They should definately give the inmates more things to do to give them a sense of satisfaction. It teaches the true value of work and is an excellent way to educate

Kirsten Vines
Past Member 2 years ago

It's a fantastic idea. Gardening can truly be a rehabilitative occupation, and it can protect the mental health of these prisoners. They can be peaceful and happy, work together, rather than fight with other inmates, have a daily highlight, or at least something to look forward to in a day, use their time constructively and sanely, and develop skills which will help to prevent reoffending, allow peace in life and even help to get a job or practice gardening as a personal interest. Therefore I think this kind of practice could be applied to many more institutions other than prisons although obviously this is a great place to start

Patricia H.
Patricia H.2 years ago

I agree with Lori Ann H.