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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.

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2. Roots to Re-entry: Launched in 2006, the Roots to Re-Entry program is a partnership between the Pennsylvania Horticulture Society, the City of Philadelphia, and other private institutions around the city. The garden is tended by roughly two-dozen inmates for several hours during the week, providing seedlings and organic produce for community gardeners, local food pantries, and soup kitchens.

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“We produce thousands and thousands of pounds of food for donation,” says Sharat Somashekara, city gardens coordinator for the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, which helped establish the program through its Philadelphia Green program. “Our whole garden is managed organically,” he adds. “We build the soil, we compost, we cover crop – we even make our own cayenne pepper spray [a natural pesticide].” The program gives inmates a chance to develop new skills, gain hands-on landscaping experience, and pursue meaningful employment upon their release.

Roots to Re-Entry participants receive 14 to 16 weeks of training, beginning with behavioral workshops at the prison provided by the Mayor’s Office of Re-integration Services for Ex-Offenders (RISE). Bartram’s Garden, an organization partner, provide inmates hands-on training to build practical skills and knowledge in the horticulture and gardening fields. This includes lessons on tools and equipment use, maintenance, safe practices, plant identification, and turf management. 

Roots to Re-entry in Action: The Roots to Re-entry is unique in its level of integration with other environmental initiatives across the city. Besides teaching inmates job skills, the program has distributed 47,000 pounds of organic produce to needy families. Inmates have raised thousands of seedlings that are distributed to 42 community gardens participating in the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program. The resulting produce is donated to local food pantries operated by a local nonprofit called SHARE, which gives the produce to low-income residents along with the Health Promotion Council, an organization that holds nutrition education classes for vulnerable and at-risk populations.

“It’s a beautiful thing to plant something and see it grow,” said inmate Larry Brand. “It makes me feel like I’m giving back for some of the things I did wrong.”

3. GreenHouse: Started in 1996, GreenHouse is a garden program designed to rehabilitate convicts in Rikers Island in New York City. With a greenhouse, a classroom, and over 2-1/2 acres of landscaped and productive gardens designed and built by inmates, participants receive applied skills, including woodworking and building planters, and job counseling from the program. Each year about 125 inmates participate in the program. Once released, GreenHouse offers 9- to 12-month paid internships as part of the Green Team, where individuals maintain gardens at public libraries and in other spaces throughout the city, earning $7 to $10 an hour.

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