Time in the Garden

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Turning over a new leaf.


ESEAAt 7:50 a.m. on an unseasonably hot day in June, eleven women gather outside a spacious greenhouse to distribute tools and plan the day’s shift: watering, weeding, thinning, and harvesting crisp snap peas, bok choy, and crimson strawberries from immaculately tended rows. As full-time gardeners, they work eight hours a day, five days a week. Welcome to Oregon’s lone prison for women: Coffee Creek Correctional Facility.

During the spring and summer months, the garden spills over with loads of heirloom tomatoes, Walla Walla onions, leafy greens, and garlic. It sits beside the courtyard that separates the minimum and medium security wings, and hums with activity at times when inmates are allowed outdoors to walk for exercise, buy a coffee from the commissary stand, or simply sit and laugh beneath the sky.

Take away the state-issued prison blues and the towering perimeter of fencing lined with barbed wire, and it could be any of Portland’s community garden spaces. Leave it to the inmates’ eyes to reveal the reality of incarceration, even among the tranquil beauty. And on that day in June, one woman stood out from the others.

“People call me Mache.”

She wore sunglasses and around-the-ear headphones and protectively clung to a teddy bear with her arms painted in thick scars. Acutely focused, she picked an array of native flowers for one of the facility’s four annual bouquet-arranging classes in the courtyard’s greenhouse.

Access to the courtyard is a privilege for the minimum-security inmates. Mache had transferred to minimum only two months prior, after spending eight grueling years in medium, where outdoor access is woefully limited. “It’s so dark and gray over there, I became numb,” she says. “Being outside and working in the garden — I’m starting to feel like I’m part of the world again.”

The Coffee Creek Garden now operates independently from Lettuce Grow, a program born in 2009 after a former inmate took a Portland State University sustainability course and shared her vision for a prison garden with a long-time volunteer at the facility. At the time, the idea seemed impossible. But in 2010, after necessary buy-in from the Oregon Department of Corrections and overwhelming support from volunteers and community members, ground was broken.

In 2012, Mercy Corps Northwest, the Oregon Public Health Division, and the Oregon DOC collaborated on a Kaiser Permanente–funded survey to assess the health of inmates at Coffee Creek. The study was alarming: 89 percent of the women who had been incarcerated for 6 to 24 months were overweight or obese, with an average weight gain of 17 pounds since entering the system.

At the time of the survey, the prison’s kitchen staff was required to serve inmates 3,000 calories per day. Meal options were limited to a meat or veggie tray built around ingredients purchased on a budget of $2.30 per inmate per day. Traditionally, “veggie tray” simply meant swapping out meat for beans. Pair the caloric intake with one lone hour of exercise per day, and weight gain was essentially unavoidable.

Since the survey, Coffee Creek has dropped the calorie requirement to 2,100 and has expanded its vegetable garden from 10,000 to 23,000 square feet. A close collaboration with the kitchen staff has resulted in menus planned alongside seasonal harvests, and it’s become a mutually beneficial experience. Recently, an abundance of kale inspired the staff to create a recipe for cream of kale soup.
One of Coffee Creek’s food service coordinators, Christopher Norris, recalls, “It’s these types of challenges and opportunities to improvise, create, think about, and discuss what we cook and how we cook it that has led to an inclusive, supportive, and pro-social crew that not only works together to produce remarkable dishes, but has also helped to develop and foster a sense of confidence, pride, and character in the girls.”

ESEAToday, 90 percent of the food grown in the garden goes directly to inmates, and the additional 10 percent is donated to the Oregon Food Bank.

In the years since its founding, Lettuce Grow’s success has exploded, with garden education programs offered in 13 of Oregon’s 14 adult correctional facilities and in three juvenile detention facilities. In 2015, the facilities grew 285,000 pounds of food for use in their own kitchens and an additional 50,000 pounds for local food-relief organizations.

Last year, Lettuce Grow merged with Growing Gardens, the beloved Portland-based nonprofit dedicated to garden education, and was officially recognized by the Oregon Department of Corrections as an exceptional program. The merger has provided more robust volunteer coordination support and resources. Though the program was founded to address inmate health, its impact has since transformed into something far more powerful.

Thanks to a dynamic collaboration among organizations, inmates can now enroll in Oregon Food Bank’s six-week Seed to Supper course and in the 11-week Sustainable Gardening course that serves as the academic component of Oregon State University Extension’s Master Gardener program. While serving time, inmates can complete all of the academic and practical experience needed to earn a Certificate of Home Horticulture, and if they choose to complete 90 hours of volunteer gardening work after they’ve been released, they’ll receive the prestigious and widely recognized certification of Master Gardener.

“I learned a lot of the science behind gardening that I would have otherwise missed out on,” explains former CRCI inmate Nikolas Shearer, “and the classes did become an employment option. The employment opportunities for ex-cons are pretty dismal. I use most of my green skills to save plants on jobsites and help others grow.”

Shearer now serves on the board of directors for Growing Gardens. For him, the educational aspect of the program has been fundamental to a successful reentry into society. “Employers are interested in a knowledgeable employee,” he says. “The Certificate of Home Horticulture shows that an individual has the capability to study and be successful in a given field.”

The journey toward these certifications is equally critical: It allows inmates to engage with people in a constructive way. Oregon’s 30 percent recidivism rate is one of the lowest in the country, second only to Vermont. To date, over 500 inmates have graduated from the gardening program, with a recidivism rate of only 8 percent. The statistics confirm the significant rehabilitative benefits gained from putting one’s hands in the soil and learning life skills through garden-based problem solving.

Lettuce Grow director and instructor Rima Green is in close touch with how the experience impacts students. “The other day, I had a student who spent two hours diagnosing powdery mildew. If you’re a gardener in Oregon you know what powdery mildew is. But he was so proud because he went through the whole checklist and looked it up in the plant-disease handbook to determine what it was. And he said, ‘You know, I could probably apply that process to my life.’”

ESEAGreen explains that when it comes to the lack of societal interest in championing the health and well-being of inmates, it’s due to the mentality of ignoring what you can’t see or perhaps don’t understand. But with over 300 people being released from Oregon’s correctional facilities every month, it’s an issue that affects all of us. “Some of these people did very bad things and belong in prison,” Green says. “Others just made a mistake. But at the end of the day, every one of these people has a release date. Who do you want back in your community?”

United by the soil, inmates are freed from the self-imposed racial segregation within the prison walls, often done for personal comfort or safety. On a recent morning, a diverse group of inmates at Columbia River Correctional Institution stood in the garden with gloved hands and playfully razzed each other about who got the highest score on their last Sustainable Gardening test. Then, they went to work meditatively watering, thinning tomato plants, and harvesting buckets of spicy radishes and fragrant basil.

Beyond providing job credentials, the garden offers a therapeutic respite from the harsh realities that exist inside the facility walls. “It takes your mind off where you are, of what’s happening on the inside,” explains one of the inmates enrolled in the program. “The dorms are always loud. The noise never stops. Out here, it’s peaceful. The garden is the quietest spot in this whole place.”

Green estimates that there are 150 tomato plants of myriad varieties, such as bright purple Indigo Rose, Sweet Isis, and Chocolate Cherry. In spring and summer, the garden overflows with bright-green snap peas, radishes, salad greens, carrots, onions, garlic, and herbs. This year, there’s even a row of corn.
After the day’s harvest, inmates carry their bounty through the sprawling chow hall and back into the stainless steel–clad industrial kitchen. A smiling onlooker shouts, “Oh yeah, the veggie tray is gonna be good tonight!” It’s a prized gig to be the one who delivers to the kitchen, because being a gardener is a status symbol on the inside. For people living without basic freedoms, fresh vegetables are a powerful reminder of life on the outside, and a deep sense of gratitude is extended to those who make it possible.

The lead chef at Columbia River Correctional, Ms. Elliot, has been one of the greatest champions of the garden program. She’s so dedicated, in fact, that she took all of the classes alongside the inmates — something that’s unheard of — and has been working directly with the crew to plan seasonal meals. Last year, she was given 100 pounds of basil, and she’s requested that over a dozen herbs be planted this year.

Inmates give resoundingly similar responses when asked to describe their favorite part of gardening: grazing privileges. Moving up and down the rows, they snack freely, one of the only times when food choices aren’t dictated by someone else. Shearer recalls days spent in the garden: “To eat a green bean off the vine was heaven.”

The program is run almost exclusively by volunteers willing to brave the months-long process of acquiring a security badge, follow a rigorous dress code, and pass through metal detectors, simply to gain access to the facilities. While there have been a few extremely dedicated volunteers since day one, there’s always a dire need for more long-term volunteers. Juvenile detention centers are especially in need, as three volunteers are wanted for every class.

ESEABut once a volunteer overcomes the challenges of getting inside, the rewards are profound. Marian, a woman in her mid-20s with a food-justice background, has volunteered for two years at CRCI and the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Center. For her, the experience has been overwhelmingly rewarding. “I’ve never once felt threatened. All of the men I’ve worked with at Columbia River have been exceptionally kind. It’s amazing. We’re able to connect and work together in a way that would be completely impossible otherwise.”

And for the inmates, the willingness of volunteers to take time out of their daily lives to engage with them is incredibly meaningful. “It’s not uncommon for me to be asked, ‘Why are you here? Did someone make you do this?’” says Marian. “It’s especially powerful for inmates to realize that they still matter, that they’re still important, even though they’re incarcerated.”

Looking ahead, Green hopes to expand the number of facilities hosting greenhouse management courses, implement drip irrigation, and continue working with staff to better incorporate fresh produce into the kitchens. And as with all nonprofit organizations, finding sustaining funding is critically important. But Lettuce Grow is showing no signs of slowing down, and Shearer is a powerful example of the program’s impact.

“Lettuce Grow provides hope and honest interaction in a place full of anger and fear. Inmates leave with a skill they can develop and use the rest of their lives if they choose to, but the power and healing of a garden is learned inside the fences. I have stayed involved to honor the work that the volunteers put in to provide education, hope, and a safe haven inside the razor wire.”

Carolyn White force-feeds her friends and moonlights as a freelance food culture writer in Portland, Oregon.

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