In full bloom in the American penal system is “The GreenHouse”. At Rikers Island is what the New York Times called “the nation’s oldest and largest prison garden [which] has quietly flourished for the past three decades, a period during which rampant gang violence and a scandalous culture of abuse among the guards made Rikers the most notorious jail in America.” Serving some 500 inmates, the garden is “almost certainly the only place on the island where the incarcerated call the shots. Aided by a team of experts from the Horticultural Society (the Hort, as it’s known to those involved), the inmates plan the gardens and landscaping, build the sheds and other small structures and choose seeds from a catalog during the winter.”
The American penal system does not do nearly enough to prepare incarcerated individuals for life after prison. The GreenHouse is a shining example of how we can do better. Instead of limiting employers or landlords the critical access they to full and factual criminal histories, governments must do a better job of training inmates and lowering barriers to occupational and professional licenses. Employers and landlords should also be encouraged, by changes in statutes, rules, and practices, to put more reformed criminals to work.
The lessons learned in The GreenHouse are critical parts of a broader “’reform agenda,’ which includes initiating a number of so-called “re-entry programs” that train people in trades like automobile repair, carpentry and cooking”, according to Stacey King, executive director for educational services at the New York City Department of Correction. It is gratifying to know that
as innovative as it was when it was founded, the GreenHouse is no longer unique. There are others, like the Insight Garden Program, which combines gardening with mindfulness training. It operates in California’s San Quentin prison and 13 other facilities nationwide and serves approximately 1,500 incarcerated people annually, according to the group’s founder, Beth Waitkus.
Reentry is tricky. Prof. Deborah Koetzle of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice said that “the prison system is broken.” “We lock people up, we don’t provide the services they need, and we make it difficult for them to get jobs when they come home. Prisons cause a lot of harm.” According to a “2008 study by Alison Laichter, a graduate student at Columbia University, showed that participants in the GreenHouse program had a 40 percent lower rate of reconviction than inmates in the general prison population. Similar results are reported for the garden at San Quentin.”
Eric J. Ellman is Senior Vice President for Public Policy and Legal Affairs at the Consumer Data Industry Association (CDIA) in Washington, DC. He also served for eight months as Interim President and CEO of the Association. More