Prison farms and gardens yield a bountiful harvest. Small acts of nurturing and tending help inmates build sturdier lives

LEO FARLAND dusts off his overalls, apologizing for a slightly disheveled appearance. He's come in for this interview straight from the cow barn, where a young heifer has had some of the staff on the run and he hasn't had time to clean up the way he would like. ``I guess she was playing with us,'' he says of the calf, then adds: ``My life's just great now, better than I ever thought it could be.'' The statement comes as something of a surprise because Leo Farland is in jail here at the Massachusetts Correctional Institute at Shirley, midway through a 22-year sentence for armed robbery and second-degree murder. He credits ``that playful little animal and all the others in the barn'' for making his newfound sense of well-being possible. ``I love them and I reckon they love me right back,'' he says.

Mr. Farland has waited a long time to feel this good about himself -- almost 36 years in fact.

Farland grew up in orphanages and boarding schools, developing little sense of self-worth along the way. ``I reckon I wasn't the nicest kid around,'' he says of that period. His life on the outside -- one long string of failures and frustrations -- culminated in a bungled robbery attempt in 1974 that left one man dead. At the time, jail seemed a most unlikely place to foster the self-improvement he never learned at school, yet that's where Farland discovered, as he puts it, ``the way I can contribute to society.''

Farland credits two factors that made the dramatic change possible: the discovery in his cell of a back issue of Mother Earth News, and the revival of a farm and gardening program in the Massachusetts prison system that some regard as a model for the nation.

The magazine, with its message of practical rural living and individual responsibility, ignited a spark in Farland; the farm program subsequently enabled him to practice his newfound interests.

The case of Leo Farland is not unusual. Reports of similar and even more dramatic turnarounds are surfacing with increasing frequency since farm and gardening programs began to be reintroduced in many state prison systems during the past few years. In the late 1970s, according to estimates from the National Gardening Association (NGA), only 11 states had ongoing prison farm and gardening programs. Today, that figure has risen to 38 states.

Inmate benefits that accrue from farm and gardening programs are now well recognized by prison officials who have worked with inmates in the programs. They say that farm and gardening programs provide:

Meaningful work for inmates. Raising food is not ``make work,'' and prisoners recognize that fact. Gardening and farming offer many of them the chance to see the value of working today for tomorrow's benefits.

Better food for the institution. When inmates pass through the line where fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and the like are offered, these vegetables are the first to be taken. Prison officials see a close relationship between the quality of the food offered and the behavior of inmates.

Good learning opportunities. Gardening, greenhouse work, and animal husbandry teach skills that improve job opportunities on the outside.

An opportunity to succeed. Behind most prisoners is a history of failures in family life, school, and work. Watching something he has planted and tended grow well and yield a harvest is often a prisoner's first taste of success. It does much for his morale and self-respect.

Once established, most farm and gardening programs run at little cost to the taxpayer. The Massachusetts prison farming system, under the direction of Marianne Lupold, has in three short years reached the stage where it now all but pays for itself. ``Only the salaries still come out of taxpayer money,'' says Ms. Lupold, ``and we expect the farms will pay their way totally, including all salaries, within the next two or three years.''

Lupold credits her ``stunning success'' -- as Nancy Flinn, author of the just-published Prison Garden Book (NGA) describes it -- to the fact that she has received solid support from Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and others in the state legislature.

Meanwhile, Ms. Flinn, known to her gardening friends as ``the prison lady'' and to many prison inmates as ``the gardening lady,'' is credited with the revival of prison farm and gardening programs around the country.

In the 1950s, the Humphrey-Hawkins bill -- aimed at eliminating ``slave labor'' in the prison system -- and the arrival of cheap trucking and inexpensive food from afar contributed to the steady phasing out of on-site farm programs.

At the time, farming as a valid rehabilitation tool was largely unrecognized and stayed that way until Flinn, a staff member of Gardens for All, now the National Gardening Association, suggested to her colleagues that she investigate and promote gardening in prisons. That was in the late '70s. The upshot was the establishment of a 3-acre garden for the Chittendon Correctional Center in Burlington, Vt., that produced more than $15,000 worth of vegetables in the very first year.

More important, though, was the change in those who elected to work in the garden. They were more relaxed, had much greater self-respect, and consequently were more respectful of others. Prison guards noticed the change. So did fellow inmates. Soon there was a waiting list for a place on the gardening detail.

After release, two inmates were able to take up careers in horticulture as a direct result of their prison experience. Another inmate asked if he could continue in the gardening program after his release. Released prisoners would drop by the garden quite regularly for a visit. But perhaps the greatest compliment came from a prisoner who escaped by scaling the prison wall instead of taking the much easier route of slipping away from the unfenced garden. Earlier, when confiding in some of his fellow inmates, he assured them he would do nothing to jeopardize the garden program.

With such positive results emerging from the Burlington experience and from similar isolated programs begun elsewhere, Ms. Flinn began touring the country giving slide shows and talking to any prison official who would listen. One of those states was Massachusetts.

Beyond the financial and organizational success of the Massachusetts system are the achievements of the individual inmates, of whom Leo Farland is one.

Before his jail experience he had never kept a job more than a few weeks at a time. ``Either I would quit or I'd be fired,'' he recalls. ``Life was just a game, and I played it every day.''

Then came jail and his discovery of the Mother Earth News. For the first time ever he felt he wanted to become seriously involved in something.

By accumulating enough good-conduct points, Farland was able to apply for a transfer to the Shirley farm system, where he opted for work in the cow barn looking after 127 head of mixed dairy and beef cattle. It's a physically demanding job that involves feeding, milking, attending to the birth of calves, raising hay, corn, and doing all those repairs that are a part of an everyday farm operation. It also means rising every day at 5 a.m. and putting in some long hours.

After six months on a program any inmate can quit if he wishes, but Farland chose to stay on. The man who previously got bored within weeks of whatever job he had now has no intention of quitting, however long he remains in prison.

With 12 years of his sentence still to run, Farland hopes that he might be paroled within a few years. But if not, he'll just stick with the program. ``You've got to believe me. I've never enjoyed life so much as I do right now and all the time I'm in here I'll be learning more and work ing toward my personal dream.''

That dream: 100 acres of hay, silage corn, and cattle . . . and maybe a summer camp for ``city kids who'd like to find out what farming's all about.''

Finally there is purpose to Leo Farland's life.

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