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Real Rehabilitation - Benefits of Organic Gardening

Story at-a-glance -

  • Preliminary research in California prisons suggests that among prisoners who participated in gardening programs, less than 10 percent returned to prison
  • Growing food from seed, many prisoners finally experience success after a lifetime of failures, which helps to build self-esteem and skills for finding a job after release
  • Some prison garden programs use their harvests to feed inmates; others donate produce to food banks, churches, nursing homes and low-income communities

By Dr. Mercola

In the U.S., there are more prisoners than farmers. In fact, according to Solutions journal the U.S. housed about one-fourth of the prison population worldwide, which amounts to nearly 2.3 million people.1

Most (80 percent) of the prisoners are incarcerated for non-violent crimes such as drug charges, and the U.S. spends more than $80 billion a year on the criminal justice system alone. The implications of spending so much on prisons, not only financially but socially, are concerning, to say the least.

And, perhaps not ironically, where small family farms once stood is now an influx of new prisons dotting the rural countryside. Prisons are often built in economically depressed areas and are touted as a tool for promoting economic growth.

But this growth hinges on the continuation of crime. Efforts to stop crime would, in effect, shut down the prisons that many rural areas depend on.2 Meanwhile, for all the billions being spent on incarceration and criminal justice, most inmates are not rehabilitated upon their release.

Many prisons still focus on punishment rather than rehabilitation, which means many prisoners may be angrier and harder upon their release, any may be unwilling or lack the skills necessary to function in society. According to Solutions:3

“In states such as New York, Florida and California, more is spent on keeping people in prison than is spent on higher education.

In California, for example, it costs almost $45,000 to keep an inmate in prison for a year, while only $15,000 to send that same person to the state university system. For all the money allocated to locking people up, very little targets rehabilitation.”

Gardening Is Powerful Rehabilitation

Adding gardens to prisons may seem trite; prior to the 1970s, many prisons, including Alcatraz, had them. Then came an era when, as The Washington Post put it, “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key justice took hold.”4

Gardens in prisons disappeared, along with their many profound, yet little-recognized, benefits.

Today some prison officials are recognizing the importance of rehabilitation. Most prisoners are released, but as it stands more than 60 percent will be sent back to prison after committing new crimes or violating parole.5 Could the simplistic act of adding gardens to prisons really change that?

Preliminary research in California prisons suggests that among prisoners who participated in gardening programs, less than 10 percent returned to prison.6

Beth Waitkus, director of the Insight Garden Program, which helps U.S. prisons establish gardens, told the Post, “The demand is huge … Prisons see the value of this. When you have to tend to a living thing, there’s a shift that happens in a person.”7

And the prisoners aren’t the only ones who benefit. Some prison garden programs use their harvests to feed inmates, both saving money and adding to the quality and taste of the food.

Others donate food to low-income areas, allowing prisoners to give back to areas where many of them were raised. Still other prison gardens generate so much food that they’re even able to donate to churches, nursing homes and schools.

Gardening Lets Prisoners Experience Success

Part of what makes planting a garden so cathartic is that it represents a tangible measure of success. Growing food from seed, many prisoners finally experience success after a lifetime of failures, which helps to build self-esteem.

More than just work details in which prisoners work in the fields while being closely supervised, today’s gardening programs teach inmates gardening skills and allow them to take part in the garden’s plan and make other decisions. Solutions reported:8

“Through programs that teach the science of gardening, inmates learn that knowledge is empowerment. They shed their identity as inmates and become students. As a result, they take a greater interest in what they do, and become more skilled and passionate gardeners.

… The hopelessness of ever finding a skilled job after release, a job that provides enjoyment and dignity in a complex technological world, is replaced by a greater sense of purpose.”

Former inmates that took part in prison gardening programs may even be able to use those skills upon their release. For instance, the California-based group Planting Justice, which helps to build gardens in inner-city areas, has hired former inmates to work on their landscaping jobs.

Connecting Prisons With Nature

The Washington-state-based Sustainability in Prisons Project (SPP) goes beyond gardening and is working toward comprehensive “greening” strategies at correctional facilities.

In addition to gardens, SPP helps such institutions to establish recycling programs, composting and green job training for inmates. Their activities include:9

  • Educating and training inmates in science and conservation
  • Conservation projects involving inmates, including caring for western pond turtles and propagating native prairie plants
  • Helping inmates and staff develop sustainable operations such as recycling and composting
  • Contributing to the community; in 2015, SPP donated more than 400,000 pounds of fresh produce to food banks and prisons and 30,000 hand-crafted items to non-profit organizations

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Prison System (PSS) also operates a composting program that keeps 685 tons of food waste out of landfills every year, turning it into compost instead. The program also saves Philadelphia $40,000 a year in landfill costs.10

PSS built a composting facility via a grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and now creates so much “black gold” that they give it away to the community for free.

There’s also the Philadelphia Prison Orchard Project, which got its start from a donation of 200 fruit trees. The prison-created compost is used to fertilize the orchard, and inmates are able to work in both areas.

PPS has partnered with Temple University and inmates can earn a vocational certificate in organic farming after completing the program.

Food Waste Is a Global Issue

Inmates in the Philadelphia prison system generate 1.4 pounds of food waste per person per day, which is part of what prompted the composting program that is cutting back on sending this food waste to landfills. Food waste is not unique to prisons, however, and composting programs shouldn’t be either.

California supermarkets are among those joining in the composting movement. In April 2016, a California law took effect that requires large grocery stores to compost or recycle their food waste. Companies like California Safe Soil, which created a process to turn food waste into farm-ready liquid fertilizer in just three hours, are helping to channel the waste into usable fertilizer, fast.11

The issue of food waste attracted national attention in the U.S. in September 2015 when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), together with the EPA, announced the first national food-waste reduction goal, which calls for a 50 percent reduction by 2030.

According to the USDA, the average U.S. family of four wastes more than 2 million calories, which equates to $1,500 worth of food, every year. The USDA continued:12

Food loss and waste in the United States accounts for approximately 31 percent — or 133 billion pounds — of the overall food supply available to retailers and consumers and has far-reaching impacts on food security, resource conservation and climate change.

Food loss and waste is single largest component of disposed U.S. municipal solid waste … Furthermore, experts have projected that reducing food losses by just 15 percent would provide enough food for more than 25 million Americans every year, helping to sharply reduce incidences of food insecurity for millions.”

As for how they expect to achieve a 50 percent reduction in food waste, they plan to build on the ongoing U.S. Food Waste Challenge (launched in 2013), which creates a platform of leaders and food-chain members to share best practices to reduce, recover and recycle food loss and waste.

Tackling Food Waste and Food Loss

Other initiatives aim to tackle both food waste and food loss. The celery that goes bad in your veggie crisper, the remainder of your sandwich at a restaurant, and the loaf of bread that goes moldy on your kitchen counter are all contributors to the massive epidemic of food waste.

Restaurants and supermarkets are also contributors. Food loss is another issue, which typically takes place at production, postharvest and processing stages in the food supply chain. Initiatives to tackle these issues include:

  • Apps to help consumers understand how to safely store food and understand food date labels
  • Consumer education campaigns with food-waste facts and reduction tips
  • Encouraging restaurants, grocery stores, food service companies and others to set aggressive goals for reducing food loss and waste

Gardening and Composting in Your Own Backyard

The benefits of gardening are universal, and you stand to reap the rewards of starting your own backyard garden and compost pile. Once you begin to grow your own foods, it naturally lends itself to composting the scraps from all of the produce you harvest. Composting can be done on virtually any scale. If you live in a city or suburb, there are many small systems available. The principles of composting — finding the balance between carbon, nitrogen, water and air — remain the same.

If you want to give it a try, check out my interview with New York City native Rebecca Louie, above. She’s the author of "Compost City: Practical Composting Know-How for Small-Space Living,” and in the video she reveals how to create compost in even the smallest of spaces.