August 12, 2012

Gardening for Life. ~ James Jiler

Photo: Flickr/Mohamed Syazwan Jamaludin

The South Florida Reception Center, a state prison in Miami-Dade County, sits on the edge of the Everglades next to a well-heeled suburb of Miami, a mere ten-minute drive from the famous Doral Golf and Country Club.

It’s where the main road, Doral Boulevard, shrinks from six lanes down to two, then peters past a limestone quarry into vast swamps, colonized by stands of melaleuca trees.

It is a huge facility, a transfer station for men moving into the state system—and then busing out to any of the hundreds of prisons throughout the state that, at last count, housed over a one hundred thousand inmates.

Just behind the main facility is a separate area known as the South Unit, where up to eight hundred men, all over the age of sixty-two, are biding their time either waiting for release…or waiting to die.

As one drives up the access road, they pass a well-kept trailer park—ostensibly the homes of prison staff and officers—past great egrets, knee deep in an Everglade marsh and rolling fields of cut grass, spreading treeless to acres and acres of fencelines covered with razor wire. The parking lot is fringed by a few oleander trees but it is not until one enters the control gate does the landscape alter; for inside South Unit are islands of lush tropical gardens, framing the administrative buildings, the visit house, along pathways and creating islands of their own.

Thirteen men, ages ranging from sixty-three to seventy-nine, toil hatless in the hot sun—save for two men with straw hats, patched together with duct tape—bent over small gardens, scratching in the earth with sticks, pulling at the ground with bare hands and bustling about with rusty, used coffee cans filled with water from a spigot near the mess hall.

A short walk across a hot, grassless field, behind one of the buildings, brings one to the shade house, essentially four rusting poles connected to rusting metal tables and resting on a huge concrete slab. There are a few tables in the center; the shade material on top is mostly torn away, the casualty of the fierce winds that swept though in a hurricane the previous year.

Another six men in blue uniforms are busy filling pots with soil, watering trays containing small sprouting plants or are crouched over beds of growing vegetables.

Surrounding the concrete slab are rows of onions, tomatoes and cucumbers. Collards and mustard greens form another bed. There are peppers and on a bed built high like a thin dike, are bright sunflowers. Around each row is an elaborate wall of stones that form the edge of each bed and on the fringe of this garden is a long line of dwarf papayas.

There are also an avocado, tamarind and pomegranate, all knee-high. A few of the beds appear washed out and the plants struggling—but one is not struck so much by the produce, which is doing well—but by the fact there is a garden here at all.

For starters, inmates are not allowed to garden with tools—or tools as modern civilization knows them.

Inmates at South Unit make do through necessity, with a more primitive means of gardening; for much like humans in the stone-age, they use a variety of sticks—hard, blunt ones, for digging and scraping; sharp ones for prying and deepening; pointed stones for crushing, the fanlike roots of a discarded or dead plant as a rake, coffee cans to shovel and the edge of rusted cans to cut, prune and trim.

It can take up to a year to excavate a bed from the calcified, oolitic limestone bedrock that substitutes for topsoil in South Florida. As small chunks of limestone are dislodged or dug up, they become the material for the system of rock walls around each bed.

An inmate named Michael, whose skills, according to him, come from a long family line of Italian masons, finely crafts the walls. Michael is in his late sixties, short and wiry with a sharp sense of humor and an easy-going manner. His parents, after arriving from Italy, settled in Connecticut, where he lived until enlisting with the Marines. In 1968, he was sent to Vietnam and after his service he drifted down to Florida, following the weather and a variety of jobs in the construction trade.

It is confounding to imagine what he did to be spending the rest of his life in prison.

Now, his job has a laser-like focus: to ensure the beds will not collapse during the heavy rains of summer. Out here, soil is a scarce and precious commodity and its loss through run-off sounds a death knell for the prison garden.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t soil in or near South Unit; on both compounds—One and Two—are low-lying compressions that form grassy swamps when it rains and dried-up ponds during the dry season, in winter. Herons and egrets frequent the area, looking for snails and frogs and occasionally small alligators appear which, rumor has it, inmates try to keep as pets until they get too large to hide (or handle).

The bottom of these low-lying areas are thick in muck, a peaty rich silt, formed with accumulated dying grass and the silt brought from the surrounding everglades in heavy rains. In the past, an assistant warden would appear, who understood the value of beautified grounds, along with the importance of giving elderly lifers something meaningful to do. They authorized crews of inmates to dig out soil from the low-lying areas and wheelbarrow it to designated garden sites around the grounds.

But, as often the case, one warden is eventually replaced by another—perhaps one who feels that anything to do with the outdoors, other than a friendly game of softball or horseshoes, is a security risk. Or priorities change; the soil disappears, the trees removed, seeds confiscated and the inmates ultimately discouraged from working outside, unless assigned to mow the grass and other mundane maintenance activities.

When I arrived at South Unit to establish a formal horticulture program and teach elderly students the science behind gardening, this was the state of affairs at the prison. Whatever resources they had were used to do a little propagation of the same plants over and over again, for a few tidy gardens around the administrative buildings on Compound One.

Staff had little or no interest in procuring soil to expand the gardens and inmates were certainly not allowed to excavate soil on their own from the in-house swamps. So, they improvised and planted random patches of vegetables from seeds smuggled out of the kitchen. They propagated a staghorn fern in a laundry net, which was hung under a planting table in the shade house.

One garden, near the front entrance gate, was a gem-like micro landscape, carefully constructed with miniature bridges and arched Japanese gates, stone rivers and Bonsai trees. I expected to see a small electric train rumble through it. The Bonsai were meticulously groomed from weeds such as dog fennel, which had seeded into the surrounding yard. Other “weed” plants harvested from the yard and were magically transformed into ornamentals were such castaways as casuarina, artillery fern, and Spanish needle; the bridges were crafted of small sticks and tied together with bits of nylon shoelaces.

My job was to teach the older inmates basic skills in horticulture and supplement their work with a smattering of courses in plant and soil science, ecology, pest management and propagation. They, in turn, would use that learning to teach others, notably younger men who were housed at South Unit and were close to leaving prison for work release.

Of my fourteen students, a majority had a strong background in farming or horticulture. One sixty-seven year old inmate (and ironically, the only student to ‘drop’ the class) was serving a five-year sentence for growing marijuana. A number of others had grown up on farms in rural Georgia, Florida, Jamaica, Honduras and Cuba. And a few, before their time in prison, had worked as groundskeepers for gated communities and golf courses.

Mr. Stanlieb, a short, chubby man in his early sixties, sporting a necklace with a Star of David, revealed to me that he once had a Bonsai and orchid business—and indeed was responsible for the miniature Japanese landscape. His face lit up when I told him how beautiful it was. “I’ve been working on that every day, for the last two years,” he said.

It was altogether a highly motivated, knowledgeable crew and my role was best utilized by mobilizing resources to expand the gardens and diversify the plants available for gardening.

Each day, I would unload one, sometimes two or three bags of compost at the front gate and wait to be escorted to the garden. I would bring in seeds, six-inch plants, concentrated nutrients, organic pesticides and the occasional bag of topsoil. I did this for a little over six months. And, in that time, much changed in the gardens at South Unit—and in the outside world.

For one, there was a newly elected President and two…a complete melt-down of the country’s financial sector, culminating in an economy comparable to the Great Depression.

Florida was hit especially hard and not only suffered from the housing meltdown (and a huge deficit in the state budget) but for the first time in sixty years, had lost population.

As the state struggled, with its deficit and cuts in human services, more money was being allocated for a major growth industry: state prisons.

From a population of twenty thousand inmates, twenty years ago, to almost one hundred thousand in 2009, the state could not keep up with its burgeoning rate of incarceration. So, it built more prisons but ironically, was unable to staff them—or provide rehabilitative programs for the forty-five thousand individuals expected to be released that year—the majority of whom would return to their communities without support and sadly, would likely end up returning to prison.

In the same way other government agencies were forced to make cuts, the State Department of Corrections also needed to find ways to save money.

For the men at South Unit, the ground-altering changes happening in the country were played out in the mess hall, as the prison began rationing food and doing away with fresh fruit and bread. Meat was virtually eliminated and inmates were allowed a daily allotment of one small cup of juice. “Whatever food they cut,” an inmate told me, “they make up for it in additional carbs, so a lot of prisoners who would benefit by losing weight, don’t.”

As recently as twenty years ago, a majority of prisons in Florida raised their own food but now, amidst hugely expanding budgets and tighter fiscal policy, instead of growing food, inmates sit tight, with little to occupy their time in constructive work, activities or programs. Most will have health issues—which the state is responsible for—but also struggling to adequately fund. In South Unit especially, where the minimum age is sixty-two, health is a major concern and financial cost for the Department.

One thing the horticulture group agreed on: with all the empty land in Compounds One and Two, it would not take much for fourteen men with a few tools and unlimited access to soil to grow enough produce to supplement their food in the mess hall.

The small garden they cultivated for over the course of six months at the shade house had already generated a small stream of herbs and vegetables. From one papaya that I bought at Robert’s Fruit Stand in Homestead, they had germinated eighty plants; dug eighty holes through hard coral rock, which they filled with soil and store-bought compost, planting one papaya per hole.

Oregano, lemon balm, mint and the naturally sweetened leaves of stevia, were used to make “healing” teas. At the shade house, the group had fresh cucumbers, mustard greens, tomatoes and basil, which they ate through the cooling days of winter.

Apart from food, we established another project: a native plant nursery that—we hoped—could help restore degraded parks in low-income neighborhoods around Miami. In this way, inmates spending much of their life, if not their entire life in prison, could contribute something positive to society, along with helping to improve the environment. What better way than to grow plants? With seeds collected in the wild by children from a community center in the low-income neighborhood of Liberty City, my students learned the long and painful process of germinating native species.

Exotic names such as necklace pod, Ceiba, Senna alata, Lignum vitae (sacred tree of life) and beautyberry, were written on tags and placed on germinating seed trays. Already, three long rows of three gallon pots, with healthy growing plants, were set by the shade house, ready to depart prison for needy Miami neighborhoods.

But despite strong beginnings, the garden was undergoing growing pains with the prison.

While technically, the garden and the men’s involvement with it was a good thing, too much gardening seemed to raise issues of security, contraband and food smuggling—and additional requests for supplies over-taxed a seemingly despondent staff.

After six months, I had the solipsistic feeling that the Department wished I would tire of the endless hassle of entering prison and find a life pursuit that had nothing to do with inmates or prison.

Sealed bags of peat moss and compost that I used to bring directly through the gate were now emptied into buckets and searched; e-mail requests to bring in seed trays, empty pots, vegetable seeds and soil went unanswered. Of course, there were good days too, like the day I showed up and the pickaxe I requested was automatically handed to me by the gate officer. Then, I thought I just imagined that the Department wanted me gone. Either way, the terra firma of Corrections was constantly shifting, punctuated by long bouts of silence from higher-ups that kept the project in a cloud of doubt.

Ultimately, the role of Corrections is to remove, secure and warehouse people who have broken the law—and to isolate them from society.

In New York City, where I worked at the city jail on Rikers Island for eleven years before moving to Miami, the Department mission was simply “care, custody and control.”That was a mantra repeated visually on anything “corrections,” including their transport buses, coffee mugs and recruitment advertisements.

Ironically, the word “corrections’ implies rehabilitation—but that was of the least concern to department officials. The perception was that no one would give them credit for turning out better citizens but society—and consequently elected officials—will raise hell if anyone escapes. Therefore, security trumped anything remotely relating to the health, well-being and rehabilitation of an inmate.

Of course, as anything in life, there were exceptions.

A prison in Colorado—and one in Nevada—had programs where inmates tamed wild horses to make them easier for people to adopt. At Wallkill Correctional Facility in New York, inmates cared for retired and discarded racehorses through the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation.

There are numerous puppy programs throughout the country where inmates raise dogs to work with the blind and disabled. There are programs offering yoga, meditation and the arts, as well as farms and greenhouses that all promote education, therapy and job skills. But, as much the case, these programs reach only a small portion of a prison population. And here in Florida, there was a seeming lack of programs designed to specifically prepare inmates to make better decisions or to find work, as they readied to leave prison and re-enter society.

At South Unit, there was virtually nothing for men, except a small library, the chapel services, a weekly visit by a representative from AA and a GED course run by volunteers.

Often, in leaving prison for the day and turning over an incident that epitomized what seemed to be the over-bearing strictures of security, I tried to put myself in the steel-toed shoes of a Sergeant, Major or Assistant Warden—the staff responsible for ensuring security at South Unit. At least half my students were lifers or were too old and in too poor health to be expected to survive their sentences.

Once, I remarked to a Prison Program Director that South Unit seemed more like a retirement home than a penitentiary. In fact, a standing joke was that if a riot broke out, the inmates would likely succumb to a coronary before the officers arrived to contain it. What possible harm could it do to give these guys some tools to work with? Or to let them harvest soil by the fence? Or even be on the compound when the inside grounds crew is mowing the grass?

“Don’t let appearances fool you,” the Prison Programs Director told me.  “Lifers are the ones you have to watch out for; they have nothing to lose in acting out or trying to escape.”

I had to push the mental envelope to imagine one of my students making a beeline for the fence or making any threatening moves at an officer tied to a body alarm.

The oldest of my students was seventy-nine years old, the youngest sixty-three and they were all weighted down with medication for a variety of ailments, mostly related to heart problems, stroke or diabetes.

Yet, one could not be entirely dismissive of the prison’s concerns and its excessive security measures, despite the infirmary of the inmates. This was brought home to me from a bulked-up, muscle-bound officer who was one of the escorts who accompanied me in prison.

“These guys with long sentences got long time for a reason. They’re in for murder, molesting little kids, kidnapping. A lot of bad stuff. You name it. I wouldn’t trust my back with any of them. They may look like a harmless bunch of old guys but you never know what they’re really thinking. You don’t want them out there, let alone near your family.”

I had a difficult time reconciling the men I taught and worked with in prison and the crimes they committed on the outside. Likely, had I read about their crimes in the news, I would have shaken my head and wished the worse for them during their incarceration.

Instead, I now only judged how hard they worked in building the gardens and nursery, their interest in learning about plants and ecology and sharing what they knew. And, to this end, I would do anything, barring something illegal, to advance this cause. This perhaps is the root cause of distrust between uniform and civilian volunteer staff and is the reason civilians working in prison are often treated the way they are: civilians tend to sympathize with inmates and question the (sometimes) arcane rules which govern their daily existence—measures which the uniform staff attribute to the catch-all phrase “security.”

Given that the job and pension for uniform staff was entirely dependent on maintaining security, preventing escapes and avoiding any incident that could lead to a major lawsuit, I, as a hypothetical officer, might also have a grudging tolerance for civilians.

On the other hand, programs, such as horticulture, make the officers’ work easier.

The inmates are kept busy all day doing creative, meaningful work that is therapeutic and relaxing and that tires them out. The lush prison gardens add color and beauty to what used to be a bare, weedy landscape and its qualities help sooth the frayed nerves of both staff and inmates. And, in growing food, not only can the produce supplement the stretched budget of nutritional services but also offer a healthy alternative to the canned and packaged fare found at the mess hall.

Finally, the public appreciates programs where inmates who did “bad” things to end up in prison, start doing “good” things once they are there, like growing plants to heal the environment or learning to farm and grow food.

When so much about prisons in the media are negative, successful programs like the native nursery offer the appeasing metaphor that detention facilities can be rehabilitative—and that is a story the public supports and appreciates.

While most of my students will finish their lives at South Unit, a few are going home and for them, the value of learning about gardening is a lifeline to sanity and a possible job.

Carlos R. left after five years in February 2010. He had a trailer and two acres of land, just north of Miami, that he planned to farm. Carlos spent his early twenties in Vietnam, until a slew of bullets pierced his head, thigh and shoulders, when ambushed in a rice paddy. Checks from his VA disability, along with whatever things he can grow, were expected to support him after his release.

Manny M. is hoping to leave in 2 years but that is a predication is based on whether he receives “gain” time that Corrections promised but then reneged on.

Fredo’s release date is 2016. He plans on returning home to Honduras where he owns a ten acre fruit farm. At South Unit, he asked to be in charge of the papaya plantation and worked tirelessly in chipping out the holes, distributing compost, watering the growing trees and picking off bugs, until the first fruit began to form from clusters of sweet smelling flowers in the wet heat of a Florida summer.

Reynolds, my de-facto assistant, who managed the file cabinet, organized the library, helped with lesson plans and was a stream of horticultural knowledge and an integral part of the program, left in 2012, after serving ten years.

If there was one constant element that tied these disparate individuals together, the Jew, the White Conservative, the Intellectual Horticulturist, the Latino Marine, the Jamaican Construction Worker, the Family Man with a lifetime of arrests and imprisonment, the Former Hit Man, the African-American Farmer from Georgia, two Veterans of Vietnam, the Nihilist and the old Cuban Guy was this: an undeniable love for gardening.

For the three days a week and almost one year I spent in the shade house and gardens with them, the one recurring thought I had was that if anything would keep them from coming back to prison, it was gardening and this profoundly deep connection to nature.

And for those who will never leave prison, gardening will maintain their sanity and health and offer some humanity to a world in prison where very little remains.

Planting trees, growing food and creating a nursery for a nearby neighborhood with few resources of its own, is a way inmates can contribute to society without being a part of it.

I cannot speak for the victims at large but I imagine this honors them in a more redemptive spirit than an inmate who serves their time in a prolonged state of mundane or medicated numbness.

Richard, with over twenty years remaining on his sentence, expects to die in prison. “My heart is weak,” he told me. “To be perfectly honest, I never expected to live this long.”

He was a contractor and self-taught engineer building houses in Tennessee where his wife and children still live. His son just finished college and plans on becoming a U.S. Marshall, while his daughter, now married, occasionally makes the trip south to visit him in prison.

Richard ran the shade house and was my go-to guy for distributing supplies, germinating seeds and maintaining a semblance of order in the nursery and vegetable beds. One day, after a trip to the medic, he informed me that his heart was beating normal for the first time since his arrival at South Unit and, of equal importance, his blood pressure, for the first time in twenty-five years, was down. “It’s because of working in the garden,” he said.

That day, as I was leaving prison, after being thanked profusely by my students for coming, I looked back and glimpsed at them as they slowly made their way through the gardens.

I saw them in the tedium of cinderblock walls and metallic bunks and the long-lines at medication—and realized I had only well-worn snapshots of their collective lives.

I knew nothing of their past, their work, what they did to be in prison or what families they left behind—the secrets that an individual carries throughout their lifetime, like an overweight, musty smelling duffel.

I knew only of their passionate desire to grow things.


James Jiler holds a Masters Degree in Forestry and Social Ecology from Yale University and is the former director of The Horticultural Society of New York’s GreenHouse Program, a jail-to-street horticulture program at New York City’s jail complex on Rikers Island. James is author of the book Doing Time in the Garden (New Village Press, 2006), which details the GreenHouse approach to rehabilitation and explores the role of gardening in jails and prisons around the country. During his time as director, GreenHouse became a National model for addressing the high rate of recidivism plaguing the US criminal justice system. James moved to Miami in 2008 and founded Urban GreenWorks, which integrates hands-on landscape design, garden installation and landscape management with at-risk youth and adults in the Florida State criminal justice system. He has lectured with the New York Botanical Garden’s Horticultural Therapy Program and has appeared on NPR, CBS Sunday Morning Show, Japan, France and Canadian TV, local radio, and two recent documentaries called the “Healing Gardens” and “Dirt: The Movie” detailing his work at Rikers. GreenHouse has also been featured in the NY Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily News, Newsday, The Source, and National Audubon Magazine among others. He is married and the proud father of three daughters.


Editor: Bryonie Wise

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