5 Inspiring Prison Farm Programs

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By Kate Krader Posted June 24, 2014

Prisons across the country are introducing farm programs to help teach inmates about nutrition, growing food and related life-skills. 

In the second season of Netflix's hit show Orange is the New Black an inmate-run greenhouse takes center stage. It's appropriate, because that’s what’s happening at a lot of prisons around the country: Farm programs, like the ones below, teach inmates about nutrition, how to grow food and related life-skills. The programs supply healthy food for prison cafeterias as well as for nearby restaurants and homeless shelters. Not only that: These gardening programs have been shown to reduce the rate of repeated incarceration. 

Cook County Jail; Chicago
For more than 20 years, the Cook County Sheriff’s Pre-Release Center (in partnership with the University of Illinois) has worked with inmates on a vegetable garden that supplies homeless shelters, nonprofits and restaurants throughout Chicago. Local hero chef Matthias Merges (of Yusho, Billy Sunday and A10) is a fan. “It’s a way to give back to the community,” says Merges, who hires graduates of the program and teaches about growing restaurant-grade produce. Inmates can earn a Master Gardener certificate. The jail’s garden recently added a greenhouse and has been experimenting with aquaculture; they’ve been generating more than 9,000 pounds of produce per a year.

Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility; San Diego
Farm and Rehabilitation Meals (FARM) is a brand-new program at one of San Diego’s prisons, aimed at creating a self-sustaining food supply for the prison cafeteria and reducing the recidivism rate. It’s still in the roll-out phase, but the three-acre farm cost only $4,000 (funded by private donations) to launch, and will teach inmates about sustainable agriculture and nutrition. Wehtahnah Tucker, the program’s coordinator, saw the success of similar programs around the country and wanted to create a program that would teach sustainable practices, as well as reduce the prison’s re-entry rate.

Woodbourne Correctional Facility; Sullivan County, NY
The Bard Prison Initiative (which also works with five other New York state prisons and allows inmates to earn liberal arts degrees while behind bars) was started in 1999 and enrolls 275 students per year. At Woodbourne, the program includes a large organic garden, where inmates can learn about sustainable gardening, cooking and food politics across the country. Students are also required to attend classes discussing food’s role in society (recommended reading includes The Omnivore’s Dilemma). The garden supplies more than 500 pounds of produce per year for local food banks.

San Quentin State Prison; San Quentin, CA
Planting Justice is the brainchild of a Bay Area-based nonprofit and Insight Garden Program (which started a flower gardening program at San Quentin more than 10 years ago). Last year they planted the very first vegetable garden inside a California prison. Like similar programs, Planting Justice’s aim is to reduce the recidivism rate (they say that it’s only 10 percent among participants in the gardening program), as well as teach post-prison job skills. In fact, Planting Justice has hired 10 former inmates to work on landscaping over the past three years.

Rikers Island; New York City
Launched in 1996, GreenHouse is a Rikers program for incarcerated men and women created by the Horticultural Society of New York. The program has a “jail-to-street” approach, which uses horticultural therapy to teach skills like design, construction and maintenance of the gardens; GreenHouse’s domain is, in fact, a greenhouse, as well as a classroom and two and a half acres of garden, all designed by inmates. Graduates have the chance to join the internship program GreenTeam after they’re released from Rikers.

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