Garden Time: Teaching Inmates to Grow Food for Personal and Economic Self-Reliance

Kate Lacouture

Garden Time provides garden programs for incarcerated men and women at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions (RI ACI). Through gardening, we foster education, inspiration, and empowerment; teach inmates to grow food for economic and personal self-reliance; and connect participants with opportunities that enable permanent re-entry into society. Garden Time operates gardens at three facilities at the RI ACI providing over 1,800 inmates with fresh produce while offering men and women who have had limited success in their lives the chance to gain confidence, acquire important life skills, and experience hope.

Garden Time is proud to be part of a growing network of prison garden programs that are helping to reduce the recidivism rate of participating inmates by offering career and life skills training. Unfortunately, most inmates in prison are not being prepared to survive and succeed in mainstream society upon their release. They lack the job training and social engagement necessary for life outside the structured prison environment.

Garden Time is currently raising funding to develop and pilot “Garden Time-To-Work”, a garden-based vocational training program at the Men’s Medium Security Facility. While acquiring expertise in horticulture, agriculture, and landscaping, students in the program will develop critical 21st-century learning skills and workforce readiness that will benefit them in a broad range of employment situations.

In this program, students will build skills based on curriculum from P21’s Framework for 21st Century Learning (developed and used by thousands of educators and hundreds of schools and institutions in the U.S. and abroad to put 21st-century skills at the center of learning). While acquiring expertise in horticulture, participants will learn skills like group collaboration and critical thinking and become adept at solving complex problems. They will learn how to research a topic, synthesize information, and construct and present an argument to effectively communicate with others. They will acquire leadership and interpersonal skills, working in small teams to accomplish common goals. They will learn values and skills like respecting diversity, team-building, and becoming active listeners. They will cultivate a strong environmental ethic that will guide future decision-making.

Garden Time participants will achieve these learning goals through student-led, problem-based group projects. Students will explore a range of project topics which may include convincing the Department of Corrections to adopt an organic lawn care regimen, start a campus-wide composting initiative or set up a winter microgreens operation within the facility. Garden Time will connect each project group with an outside partner doing similar work who will serve as a mentor. The mentor will work with them from project start to finish. Students will undertake smaller projects throughout the season to demonstrate proficiency in various skills. Students will create resumes based on their strengths and skills developed in the garden program. The job market our students will face upon release may be limited, but through this program, students can acquire critical skills and workforce readiness that will give them an advantage in any type of employment situation.

The Garden at Men’s Medium presents the perfect opportunity for a workforce development program since our students have sentences long enough to gain the knowledge and proficiency they need to succeed, but short enough to actively plan for release. Once the “Garden Time-To-Work” pilot has been completed and evaluated, we will be better prepared to seek workforce development funding as well as to expand the program to additional ACI facilities.

Garden Time’s mission combines social and environmental justice with food systems. Garden Time provides programming to underserved men and women who have been pushed aside by mainstream society and helps bridge the isolation inmates experience in prison by offering them the opportunity to immerse themselves in nature. Many of our students have said they forget they are in prison when they are working in the garden and take pride in its beauty and harvest.

You can listen to our gardeners at the Men’s Maximum Security Facility describe what the garden means to them on RI Public Radio’s story about our program. You can also connect with Garden Time on their Facebook Page