The Vegetable Gardens On Rikers Island Are Surprisingly Robust

Lindsay MorrisQualities that come with taking care of small, living things — such as gentleness and sensitivity — help an inmate thrive inside and outside the prison walls.

The largest penal colony in the world, Rikers Island, is home to 11,000 inmates, 10 on-site jails, and one food garden.

Five years ago, the NYC Department of Correction and the 113-year-old Horticultural Society of New York partnered to offer a restorative justice program there.

GreenHouse” teaches inmates about the development of a plant, from seed to fruition, while preparing them for employment in landscaping or other green jobs after their sentence ends.

Developing a green thumb can make all the difference.

In 2013, sisters Carrington Morris and Lindsay Morris visited Rikers Island for a story in Edible Manhattan magazine. We’ve republished their comments and photos with permission. You can find the original article here.

Approximately 11,000 inmates call Rikers Island home. The island jail complex, situated in New York's East River, serves as a waiting station for men, women, and adolescents doing time for low-level, nonviolent crimes or awaiting a verdict or sentence at trial.

There, down a dirt pathway and inside the razor-wire-topped cyclone fences, is a garden and greenhouse where inmates tend to seedlings, plant Cherokee tomatoes, peppers, string beans, thyme, basil, and rosemary, and soak in the sunshine.

Some 230 inmates volunteer their time with GreenHouse, a restorative justice program run by the Horticulture Society of New York ('the Hort') in conjunction with the NYC Department of Correction. In 2013, photographer Lindsay Morris and Edible Manhattan magazine writer Carrington Morris had the chance to visit Rikers and see how it works.

The GreenHouse gardening program was born in 1996, as part of the Hort's mission to 'sustain the vital connection between people and plants.' While the DOC supplies the land, facilities, tools, and maintenance, the 113-year-old society brings stability -- offering fiscal and organizational support when city funding fluctuates.

Inmates opt into GreenHouse, choosing it from a variety of activities. All participants receive core training on the development of a plant, from seed or seedling to fruition. While landscaping is covered, the focus is on growing food.

Often, someone shows a particular talent or interest, and he or she is encouraged to explore that interest at a greater depth. The Morris sisters met a man named Wayne, whose particular attachment to seedlings gave him reign of the greenhouse.

Another inmate, Quentin, had a craftsman's bent and was given full access to the scrap pile. He used branches and other materials found in the yard to fashion a trellis and pathway winding to the small garden.

The benefits of participation are numerous. GreenHouse provides inmates with indoor and outdoor classroom education and 'soft skills' -- skills that are useful for employees to flourish in the work force, such as timeliness, cleanliness, and impulse control.

Inmates graduate from the program with a horticultural certification based on hours spent studying and gardening. They leave Rikers ready to find gainful employment in landscaping, or enter a transitional 'bridge program,' like the Hort's Green Team.

There are also less tangible aspects of the program that come with taking care of small living things, that help the inmates thrive inside and outside the prison walls.

GreenHouse Director Hilda Krus (right) says many inmates come from an environment where being gentle can be an invitation to be taken advantage of. 'Some people have to keep their guard up at all times,' Krus says.

But 'a plant is not a threatening thing. It's not going to talk back. It's not going to screw you over,' Krus says. 'So they can bond with something that is not threatening. That is a very healthy aspect of being gentle, opening the heart for something without having to pay for it.'

Across the board, participants got more out of the program than they expected to. 'Most had their preconceptions of farming and gardening challenged,' writer Carrington Morris says. 'For many it brought back memories from their youth, of gardening with their grandparents or parents.'

Given that one in three offenders in New York City County will be rearrested in three years, GreenHouse's unique approach could make all the difference in a person's life.

'When someone comes out of prison and is back on the street, you want that to be a well person who can rejoin society in a healthy way,' Carrington Morris says. 'Then the cycle of crime is broken.'

Rikers isn't the only prison with a new take on justice.

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