Amid News of Prison Abuses, Some Detention Center Use Gardening Programs to Help Inmates

With one of the largest prison populations in the world, most of the news Americans hear about their prison system is negative, even shockingly so. Take the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw County, Michigan, for example: the only prison for women in the state, the institution is currently being investigated by the ACLU for a litany of alleged human rights abuses. Claims of prisoners being denied food, water, and shows, being subjected to unsanitary conditions, tasing and extended periods of solitary confinement are among the allegations being examined.

Much of the abuse seems to have targeted mentally ill prisons, including one woman who was reportedly found non-responsive in her cell after being deprived of food and water and is now brain dead. The Department of Justice is allegedly conducting its own investigation into the prison, although representatives have stated that they cannot confirm where an investigation is taking place.

However, in spite of the maltreatment at Huron Valley and other prisons in the United States, there are occasionally reports of programs and behavior that offers inmates beneficial opportunities over the course of their sentences. While these cases are few and far between in a prison system that many consider corrupt and flawed, they offer a faint degree of hope for our justice system and, more importantly, the future of its prisoners. As a result, a number of inmate programs emerging in several prisons and juvenile detention centers are a welcome change.

Take gardening programs, for example, which are currently offered by the Russell County Jail in Phenix City, Alabama and the Ada County Juvenile Detention Center in Boise, Idaho. The gardens created by these programs primarily grow vegetables, which the Ada County Juvenile Detention Center uses to supplement its kitchen. Meanwhile, the Russell County Jail plans to donate its crops to local charities. Both gardens are entirely under the care of the inmates, with some guidance from detention officers with experience in horticulture and related areas.

As any gardener can attest, ensuring plants grow healthily can be difficult. For example, most plants in a garden will use up the nutrients in the soil faster than they can be replaced by nature, making it vital for gardeners to find ways to provide nutrients. The Russell County Jail is a relatively new garden, and program managers are considering expanding to other unused areas within the facility’s grounds. The Ada County Juvenile Detention Center, however, is four years old and has upgraded to include an automated watering system, trellises, shade nets, and careful bed placements. The program rotates crop locations every year to protect nutrient levels.

While both programs are still relatively young, both centers have seen the positive influence gardening can have on inmates. Because detention facilities often offer few opportunities for their inhabitants to spend time outside and engage in meaningful activity, prison officials often notice better inmate behavior when programs such as the prison gardens are offered. Russell County officials have noted that their gardening program, which is maintained by female inmates, has drastically decreased incidents in the facility while also teaching the women valuable gardening skills. Likewise, many of the young offenders at the Ada County Juvenile Detention Center are experiencing something entirely foreign: many have never seen vegetables outside of a grocery store before.

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