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Five urban garden programs that train inmates and help communities

Prison gardening programs teach inmates valuable skills, reduce recidivism, and provide those in need with fresh produce.

By Emily GilbertNourishing the Planet / March 2, 2012

A worker carries freshly harvested zucchini and squash at an urban garden run by The Food Project in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston, Mass. Vegetable gardens are growing inside prison walls, too, providing training for inmates and food for the needy.

Brian Snyder/Reuters/File

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In 2008, the Pew Center on the States reported that Vermont, Michigan, Oregon, Connecticut, and Delaware spent more on prisons than higher education, and the ratio of prison to education spending was increasing. 

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Prisons receive billions of dollars each year in government funding, yet national recidivism rates continue to hover at around 66 percent. Following the economic recession, budgets have been slashed, forcing penitentiaries and post-release programs to cut spending.

Considered nonessential and expensive, garden programs are often the first to be cut, yet they have proven to be successful in not only reducing recidivism rates and improving rehabilitation, but also providing fresh healthy food to inmates and surrounding communities.

Today, Nourishing the Planet presents five innovative programs around the country that are proof of what gardening programs can accomplish.

1. Sandusky County Jail Gardening Program: Started in 2009, the 11,706-square-foot Sandusky County Jail garden in Ohio originally began as a way to cut costs and still provide food for the inmates. It soon became obvious, however, that beyond its economic benefit, inmates were provided with a program that taught them valuable life lessons and career-building skills.

“They really learn a skill out of this,” program coordinator Jim Seaman said. “It gives them a sense of something that they have accomplished. Now they are starting to get a chance to taste their hard work.”

Sandusky County Jail Garden in Action: Sheriff Kyle Overmyer estimates that the program saved his department more than $25,000 in 2009. Because the jail’s 1.5-acre garden sometimes produces more than the jail can use, he said the sheriff’s office donated about 375 pounds of produce to local food pantries and soup kitchens in 2010. Producing pumpkins, raspberries, and other fruits and vegetables, the program has also raised hundreds of broiler chickens, all of which are consumed on site. “We raised 100 broilers last year [2010] and had 600 pounds of meat after.”

Further success can be seen in the lowered recidivism rate among inmates who participate in the program. According to Mr. Seaman, compared to the general Sandusky County Jail inmate population, which has a recidivism rate of 40 percent, only 18 percent of inmates who participate in the garden program are rearrested.

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