“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