The idea of integrating gardening with prison programs isn't new—it's been one of the reasons Alice Waters has been a green celebrity for years—but the genius of the idea is no less profound now than ever, and it's finally taking root as an accepted and semi-common practice around the country.
New York isn't known for its progressive or totallykempt prison policies, but it gains points for the greenhouse project that seeks to find jobs for Rikers Island inmates, upon their release, in horticulture.
The Horticultural Society of New York, which runs the GreenHouse program, uses a small on-site horticulture and nursery operation to give basic work skills training to inmates during their time in prison. By spending time in and around the greenhouse, they learn landscaping and the basic principles of botany, soil, and natural science. When an inmate is up for release, HSNY then offers 9-12 month paid internships for individuals to maintain gardens at public libraries and in other spaces throughout the city.
The Rikers Island Warden said of the program:
Typically, when new inmates join the farm group, Ms. Banfield, who oversees the program, said, they cannot differentiate between a plant and a weed....The Farm Project is a small program, but it yields enough produce to create sizable charitable donations, in addition to making a contribution to the ecosystem of Rikers Island.
These types of programs not only enhance the environment by increasing the green:asphalt ratio, but growing food near prison sites improves the nutritional intake of the inmates, as well as trains them for green jobs when they get out—a track that when followed has been proven to reduce the rate at which former inmates return to prison. One study in San Francisco showed that 29 percent of prisoners were re-arrested within four months of their release, while only 6 percent of those who partook in a gardening program were re-arrested.
All this talk about green jobs...
The new, green economy needs universal participation, and including prisons seems an obviously necessary step to achieving that.
What have Rikers Island-HSNY GreenTeam members done in NYC? A sampler of their projects: basic garden maintenance; construction and installation of green roofs and on-site healing gardens for HSNY partner organizations; landscaping sections of NYC parks and the grounds of newly constructed buildings; and they've planted trees along neighborhood streets—something we all know NYC needs more of.