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Prison Garden Programs: Improving Health, Increasing Sustainability and Contributing to Community

Posted in Models, Movements by Jessica Bird on March 16th, 2012


Photo: agrilifetoday via Flickr CC

From “Prison Gardens a Growing Trend, Feeding Inmates on the Inside and Food Banks on the Outside” by Rachel Cernansky:

Nelson Mandela may have started it all when he was in prison—”A garden is one of the few things in prison that one could control,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Being a custodian of this patch of earth offered a small taste of freedom.”

But the idea probably rose to national fame only earlier this past decade, when the Garden Project of San Francisco started selling fresh produce to Alice Waters’s acclaimed Chez Panisse restaurant. Catherine Sneed, the woman who in 1992 founded that project, which is a post-release program for ex-prisoners, did so because she had already seen such success with the Horticulture Program at the San Francisco County Jail, where she would go out on a daily basis with prisoners to work on the farm within the boundaries of the jail. The vegetables they grew were donated to soup kitchens and homeless shelters. Her moment of realization of a need for a post-release program came when one student of hers asked the visiting sheriff for permission to stay and work on the farm; Sneed recalled, “he had nothing on the outside.”

She started a trend. An increasing number of prisons are launching gardening programs: on-site gardens improve the nutritional intake of inmates and as a direct result can reduce violence and improve participants’ mental health, teaches horticultural skills that can be used upon inmates’ release (slashing recidivism rates), and also often produce surplus that is sent to food banks or other community centers or services. Here’s just a sampler of such programs that have started since Sneed’s Garden Project, or even before:

- The Insight Garden Program, also in the Bay Area, runs a 1,200 square-foot organic flower garden at the the medium-security San Quention Prison, where classes are given to teach inmates about gardening, environmental sustainability, and community care through gardening.

- Farther down the coast, the California Institute for Women runs an organic garden that sends fresh produce straight to the prison kitchen and the hospital kitchen, and is also geared to establish connections between the women and the outside community.

- The Greenhouse Project on New York’s Riker’s Island has seen tremendous success, while in Wisconsin, 28 adult correctional institutions started on-site gardening projects last year. Each facility is producing thousands of pounds of vegetables per year—the highest yield being 75,000 pounds of produce, a quarter of which is donated to local food banks.

- Inmates at Washington State’s McNeil Island Corrections Center have transformed an acre of lawn in the middle of the facility into an organic vegetable patch filled with tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins and other plants—and composting units. The state has several other prison gardens that send produce to local food banks.

- Greenleaf Gardens runs a Prison Horticulture Vocational Program in New York’s Westchester County, where produce from a one-acre garden that is maintained by inmates is distributed to people in need in the area.

Prison garden projects exist in New Zealand and London and no doubt in numerous countries in between. There’s even a how-to book about it (although it’s out of print), and some programs have ways the outside community can get involved. So if you’re looking for a way to green your neighborhood…

For more information about the success of The Greenhouse Program on Riker’s Island, follow the link to the article. -JB

2 Responses to “Prison Garden Programs: Improving Health, Increasing Sustainability and Contributing to Community”

  1. Russell Says:

    May 9th, 2012 at 3:59 pm

    This great initiative is happening in Tasmania, with the wonderful produce food being redistributed by SecondBite to local community food programs. The prisoners have rows and rows of plantings, and the positive spin-offs are well regarded.

  2. Kate Archdeacon Says:

    May 9th, 2012 at 5:03 pm

    Really? Thanks for letting us know!

    Kate