Unusually Clever People

Soothing the savage beast


Inside, the colors are radiant as flowers flourish. Rows of yellow and orange marigolds mingle. Baskets of purple Angelonias and white lilacs hang above them. It is a serene sight behind bars.

Many of us already know that dirt makes us happy, even without the recent scientific evidence indicating that certain bacteria in soil have the same effect as antidepressant drugs—stimulating serotonin-producing neurons in a specific region of the brain.

Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that gardening activities in prison, which involve close contact with soil and plants, have, in the words of one inmate, “relaxed me and taught me patience.”

The horticulture program at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden, NY started in 1990, and went on hiatus in 2004. It was brought back this year and already has a waiting list. Prisoners tend a greenhouse and put together hanging baskets. They also undertake landscaping jobs throughout the community—at churches, hospitals, and other institutions.

 They’re mentally active,” [Superintendent Thomas] Diina said. “They’re performing meaningful work. They’re providing a service to the community. I think, overall, it benefits their mental health in that they’re not just languishing in a jail cell doing their time. They have a sense of purpose.”

I’ve never understood why educational programs for prisons meet with so much resistance. Why wouldn’t it be better to release inmates with some kind of skill that might keep them from getting right back on the merry-go-round of crime and punishment? In any case, I’m really glad that this program has been reinstated.

Posted by on June 5, 2014 at 8:00 am, in the category Unusually Clever People.
Comments are off for this post

5 responses to “Soothing the savage beast”

  1. This article got me thinking about my local county jail and how I could get involved (perhaps along with my fellow Master Gardeners or other interested folks. Thanks!

  2. Rae says:

    As a both a gardener and a person concerned about the justice system in the US, it was nice to read this article.

    However, even though I no the intent is good, maybe the article might be better titled, as the it could be construed that the “beast” here refers to an inmate. The correct meaning , derived from a 17th century play, is that music has the charms to soothe the savage breast.

  3. Lisa says:

    This is a wonderful story. I think many people can turn their lives around given the right opportunity and interest.

  4. Loretta says:

    We have a variation of this program in Philadelphia called City Harvest.
    With training from The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) staff, inmates of the Philadelphia Prison System grow seedlings at a prison greenhouse, and thousands more seedlings are started at neighborhood-based greenhouses run by nonprofit partners. The inmates receive training in gardening and basic landscaping along with valuable life-skills lessons. The seedlings are then transplanted and grown in community gardens throughout the city, as well as in the prison’s onsite garden.

    With facilitation from SHARE (Self Help and Resource Exchange, a food distribution network), the resulting produce is donated to food cupboards.

    PHS City Harvest gardeners grow and donate more than 50,000 pounds of produce each year, helping to feed about 1,200 families per week during the growing season, including residents of neighborhoods with some of the highest rates of poverty and food insecurity in the region.

  5. Laura Bell says:

    I’ve long been interested in therapeutic horticulture, but more in the field of physical rehabilitation than economic. This is a great idea, one which I hope is put in place by more and more facilities.