IN A SUNNY GREENHOUSE on the northeast side of Philadelphia, about fifteen men in orange jumpsuits are hard at work. Confronted by stacks of biodegradable seed flats and bags of potting soil, they must figure out how much soil they will need to fill the flats to raise the quota of seedlings they are to deliver to 42 Philadelphia community gardens by the second week of March.
They must master not only gardening skills, but also math, teamwork, communications, good work habits – everything they will need for the life ahead, if they succeed. They are prisoners at the Northeast Facility of the Philadelphia Prison System, participating in Roots to Re-Entry, a program intended to help ready them to return to the world outside.
One of the biggest challenges for an ex-offender who’s paid his or her debt to society is staying out of prison. In Pennsylvania more than half wind up back behind bars in 5 years. Studies suggest that parolees who can find and keep a job are less likely to go back to jail, and less apt to succumb again to substance abuse. Licking this part of the problem will be a big bonus to the State of Pennsylvania, which spent $244 million in the last five years on returning inmates.
Roots to Re-Entry, says Project Manager Francis Lawn, grew out of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s City Harvest program, begun in 2006. “Inmates work with PHS staff in the prison greenhouse on State Road to grow vegetable starts – 300,000 seedlings so far – that are delivered to community gardens.” Raised to maturity, the vegetables are then shared with food cupboards for needy city residents.
The success of that endeavor inspired PHS to expand the seedling project into a vocational training program for inmates, with the help of Bartram’s Garden; the Awbury Arboretum; KJK Associates; the city of Philadelphia and its prison and legal systems.
In 2010, a dozen men completed the program. This year 30 men are participating, and just being in a greenhouse together puts them in a completely different mood.
A graduate from the 2010 program, Quentin Davis, remembers: “We had fun – we named our plants after each other, and we’d see how they grew each week. We started so many different seedlings!”
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CANDIDATES FOR THE PROGRAM are non-violent offenders suitable for work-release and ready to be paroled. They are selected by a panel that includes staff from PHS, the participating gardens, the Public Defender and the Mayor’s Office for Reintegration Services for Ex-Offenders, known as RISE.
RISE kicks off the four-step program with behavioral workshops in the prison, where inmates are presented with cognitive tasks to prepare them to go back into society.
One goal of this phase, says Lawn, “Is to make sure the barriers an individual may have to employability, such as drug or alcohol use, literacy, etc., are identified and a road map created that can help the individual begin to remove some of these barriers to meet the next phase of training.”
After four weeks, the inmates are ready for Phase II, the greenhouse work. For four weeks beginning in February, the prisoners plant and tend greens, broccoli and cabbage seedlings in the prison’s own greenhouse, learning about organic gardening, plant biology, and food production. “It’s contextualized learning,” says Lawn.
Davis says he joined the program with no conception that it could change him. “I initially signed up because there wasn’t much to do while in there in prison. It was something to do, to learn, something different.” What he found was the opening of a whole new way of life.
Davis says, “Working with plants felt different – it was a burden off my shoulders. I had something to do. A garden looks nice. Instead of seeing streets, concrete, pavements, you see grass and trees; green, growing things. When you’re around stuff like that, in a calm environment, it changes you. I never thought a tree could change my life, but it did.”
By the middle of March, those participants judged to be work-release eligible will move to a facility in West Philadelphia. From there, they’ll go every day to work in one of three gardens: Bartram’s Garden, The Awbury Arboretum in Germantown, or the 100-acre historic garden at Friends Hospital in Philadelphia.
Davis was assigned to Bartram’s Garden. “It was in a neighborhood I grew up in, but I had never seen that park,” he says. “It was very amazing. I’d been this close to it and never paid any attention to it.”
For the next six weeks, under the supervision of PHS staff, program participants get hands-on practice in horticulture and landscape care, tool and equipment use and maintenance. They are taught weeding, with intensive training in plant identification – how to distinguish a treasured specimen from an unwanted invader. This skill, as all gardeners know, can take quite a while to acquire.
Says Davis, “The hardest thing was the memorization required to identify different species of plants, flowers, trees. I didn’t know how to memorize all that stuff — just to look at something and know what it is. I eventually learned to identify trees from looking at the bark. You have to put your mind to it. You have to be willing to commit yourself to doing it, you gotta want to learn it. There were some people in the program that didn’t make it, because they didn’t take it seriously. Some people did take it seriously, and they’re still with it.”
At the conclusion of Phase III, participants are paroled from prison and look for jobs, with the assistance of Roots to Re-Entry’s various partners. Says Lawn, “We have a dozen employers that are supporting the program. Seasonal employment is the nature of the industry, but there are some employers out there who have been able to keep workers on the job during the winter. That kind of support from employers in the industry is vital to this program.
AS THE GRADUATES BEGIN THEIR NEWS JOBS, staff members from RISE continue to monitor their progress and provide backup assistance if there are substance abuse relapses, or other lapses that cause prisoners to lose jobs. Lawn says, “Sustained employment is a challenge. Unfortunately some of the men who have graduated do face issues back in the community, with their families, and have lost employment. We’re trying to put resources in place to support the individuals and their families as well, to overcome some of the problems that help them stay on the job.”
Since he’s been on the outside, Davis has held several jobs and has graduated from a Tree Tenders course sponsored by PHS. “At the end of it I got a tree tender’s certificate,” he says. “I’ll look for work next with a tree surgeon’s company.” Later in the spring he’ll mentor this year’s crop of Roots to Re-Entry program participants as they work in Friends’ Garden.
The project is an ongoing effort, but one to which PHS and its partners are fully committed. Alan Jaffe, Public Relations Manager of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, says “Money from the flower show has always gone to PHS programs, year long. This year in particular PHS is devoting money directly to City Harvest. Roots to Re-Entry is a signature program of PHS, and one of the most needed. We want to see it expand. It’s not only a matter of food security, but also job security, which is a major issue in the Philadelphia area right now. We are also interested in creating green jobs, which is another outshoot of the program.”
As connoisseurs of flowers move appreciatively from specimen to specimen at the Philadelphia International Flower Show, they’ll know that their ticket fees are helping not just to support a fabled horticultural institution, but also outreach projects such as Roots to Re-Entry that have the potential to renew human lives and communities throughout the region.-30-
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