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by intern Becca Stanger

“Every garden has its weeds.”  Staring at this fresh sentence on my glowing desktop screen, I rolled my eyes, let out an audible chuckle, and bounced by finger on the backspace key.  As I discovered this week, the sheer number of sentimental metaphors that can be dreamed up when writing about something like prison gardens could stun a horse.  Which is a shame because, beyond the cheesy allusions to literal and figurative growth, prison gardens prove to be innovative programs offering benefits to both inmates and American society at large.

Garden programs are sprouting up (sorry) in prisons across the country.  Most notably, the Wisconsin Department of Corrections organized gardening programs in a total of 28 of its adult institution facilities this past year.  Through these programs, inmates develop essential social and life skills.  By working with their fellow prisoners and supervising staff to plan the growth of their seasonal garden, inmates learn how to work cooperatively.  The opportunity to work outside in a garden also allows inmates to nurture both their mental and physical health.  Furthermore, by learning practical work skills, inmates prepare themselves to find jobs and support themselves upon their release.  In fact, one inmate participating in San Francisco County Jail’s Horticulture Program loved the program so much that he asked to come back to the garden after his release to take care of his plants. 

If helping inmates cultivate (sorry again) the best in themselves were not enough, prison garden programs prove invaluable to American communities.  When the harvest of these prison gardens comes in, most of it is sent to the prison kitchens to feed the prisoners themselves.  This contribution helps to cut the cost of feeding prisoners – not an insignificant benefit considering prison costs are rising and states spend nearly 7 percent of their budgets on corrections after only health care, education, and transportation.

In addition, large amounts of the prisons’ garden produce is sent to nearby food banks.  At Wisconsin’s Oakhill Correctional Institution for example, inmates raised a whopping 75,000 pounds of produce, 25% of which was donated to local pantries.  And at Rikers Island, inmates donated 18,000 pounds of fresh vegetables to local soup kitchens and food pantries.  These donations prove crucial during this economic crisis.  With both the cost of food and gas prices rising, more and more Americans are turning to food banks for support.  In 2008, the number of people seeking help at Feeding America, the nation’s largest food bank network, rose by 15 to 20 percent.  In some banks, that percentage reached as high as 40 percent.  Donations have also dropped, putting food banks in dire straights with high population demand and low donation supply.  With these stressful circumstances in mind, garden donations from local prisons prove more valuable than ever.

So while it may be easy to laugh at the corny metaphors and puns stemming (I really am sorry) from prison garden programs, the reality is these programs offer benefits both inside and outside of the prison walls.  It would certainly be worthwhile for more state and federal governments to investigate the implementation of prison garden programs.  After all, there’s no need to throw the corn out with the corniness.  (I couldn’t resist a parting shot…)