Garden gives prison inmates a bridge to outside world

Steve Parent works, hoe in hand, stripped to the waist. Long hours in the sun have turned his body a deep nut brown. He's also built like a stocky Greek god, and it comes as no surprise to learn that most nights he works out with weights.

What is surprising is to hear that this dedicated gardener despised the work a year ago. "Women's work," he snorted contemptuously, making it plain that he resented the assignment. But in prison his options were limited, so he picked up the hoe when told to and learned how to cultivate and tend to the needs of a wide variety of crops.

Inmate Parent proved an apt pupil. Although he came reluctantly into the experimental program, organized by a Burlington- based group known as Gardens for All, he stayed on willingly. By year's end, he and six fellow inmates had turned 3 1/2 acres of sand into a horn of plenty for the kitchens at the Chittenden County Correctional Center here. In all the wide variety of vegetables -- onions, potatoes, peas, squash, and broccoli to name a few -- that flowed from that land was valued at $15,580 retail. Produce in excess of the needs of Chittenden went to other penal institutions around the state for a direct saving in tax dollars. Still further surpluses went to a senior citizens' apartment building.

What came back from the elderly folk was a letter of appreciation, to which one of the gardening inmates responded, "This is the first time I have received a thank-you note from anybody in my life." And herein lies the importance of the gardening project.

Gardens for All, which initiated the program, is a national nonprofit organization that came into being a few years ago to encourage and help in the establishment of community gardens, similar to the victory gardens of World War II. To this end it has produced instruction manuals and other appropriate publications. As it developed, the group broadened its interests to include specialized projects such as retirement, church, school, and rehabilitation gardens, gardens for the mentally retarded, and gardens for prison inmates.

While already in the business of promoting these gardens wherever the opportunity arises, Gardens for All also saw the need for its own research programs in these fields, preferably near Burlington The establishment of the Chittenden jail garden was one of these projects.

Nancy Flinn, who handles horticultural therapy programs for the group, approached state Department of Corrections officials with the idea. They thought it a good one. Now with one season of success behind them, "they know it's a good idea," Mrs. Flinn says. They gave the go-ahead to continue the program this year. The University of Vermont lends the acreage for the project.

The object was to provide fresh vegetables for the inmates and a salable new skill for the workers. What came as an added bonus was the changed attitudes of those involved. They accomplished something for which they could be justifiably proud. They were no longer losers, they were achievers, and a new positive self-image emerged. This according to prison superintendent George Africa, is the most important contribution the program can make. "Self-concept, in my opinion, is the biggest single factor governing whether someone can make it on the 'outside' or not."

Remember, Mrs. Flinn says, most of these prisoners, all young men, were used and abused as children. Few have better than a fourth-grade education. Failure has been a constant feature in their lives, as the tattoo on the chest of one inmate attests all too graphically. "I'm a born loser," it says.

But the garden is making a difference, Mrs. Flinn says. "They learned how to work the soil, how to use small machines and maintain them. They watched seed develop into young plants and, under their care, grow to yield a good harvest. They now knowm that they have a skill they can market on the outside."

One inmate, released at the end of last year, now has a job in a commercial nursery in the state of Washington. Another, released in the middle of the last growing season, so enjoyed the work that he asked, and was allowed, to stay on the program through the summer.

The prisoners are paid for their work under the federal Comprehensive Employment and Training Act program, and in return they pay a certain percentage to the jail for board and keep. Prisoners have learned how to handle money more sensibly than before. One inmate, serving a 3- to 9-year sentence for theft, has even paid off all his debts from behind bars -- or more accurately from behind the handles of a tiller. Another has $700 in a savings account. "I never ever saved that much money before," he says.

One of the more remarkable improvements concerns a young inmate who tightened up in the presence of strangers so that he could barely speak. Yet with constant exposure in a positive situation to strangers who shared a common interest (passers-by, interested in the garden's progress), this problem faded. Now released from prison, he recently appeared before the state Legislature in Montpelier to testify on Vietnam veterans' rights.

Gardens for All is headquartered at 180 Flynn Ave., Burlington, VT 05401.

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