Tendrils of hope grow with jail garden

“When the world wearies and society ceases to satisfy, there is always the garden.”

— Minnie Aumonier

Of all the pictures we received last week through our email, the strangest was from the Albany County Sheriff’s Office. The backdrop was no surprise: A hulking brick rectangular form — the county’s jail, with a tall fence, topped by coils of razor-sharp wire.

It was the foreground that gave us pause: Boxed garden plots, nine of them, neatly laid out, and being tended by men in green, the backs of their shirts stenciled in large block letters “ACCF Inmate.” The men were being watched by a uniformed prison guard. One watered the sprouts, another weeded, while several others did various tasks.

We had to know more.

We talked to the modest Master Gardener who started it all, Phyllis Rosenblum. “This is an important thing for them to do, to learn the skills of gardening. They can take those skills home with them, to their families and neighborhoods,” Rosenblum told us.

Ah, yes — putting the “correctional” to work in the name Albany County Correctional Facility.

Sheriff Craig Apple told us two years ago, when he started a program putting inmates to work, “The message is: If you come to Albany County, you’re not here to sleep your time away for 23 hours a day and play basketball for the other one, or watch TV. You’re here to work. This is a correctional facility and it’s supposed to correct behavior.”

We talked then to inmates cleaning up a park in Preston Hollow that was ravaged by the remnants of Hurricane Irene. One of them told us, “I just thought it would be a good way to do my time — go out to different places, and work, and get gratification out of helping somebody else. I enjoy doing the job.”

Work in and of itself can be a solace.

Sheriff Apple also said, “Most people get out and have nowhere to go. People don’t know how to be productive citizens and the recidivism rate is sky high.”

He was right; we checked. The Bureau of Justice Statistics for the United States Department of Justice reported on offenders released from state prison and found just over half were back in prison in three years. A study from the Pew Center, State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons, showed that more spending doesn’t decrease recidivism.

The Pew report pointed out that, if just the 10 states with the greatest potential cost savings (New York is second behind California) reduced recidivism rates by 10 percent, they could save over $470 million in just one year.

But more than just saving money, society would be better off. Communities aren’t safer if prisoners, once released, repeat their crimes.

Gardening is a special kind of corrective. Helping something grow — watering, weeding, and nurturing it — brings its own rewards apart from the food that is produced.

Rosenblum, who is almost 70, knows about the physical as well as the metaphysical benefits. She grew up in a family of 10 children on a farm in Illinois. Her family’s farm had a small dairy herd, laying chickens whose eggs were sold, pigs, and many kinds of crops — corn, soybeans, and alfalfa.

For winter, her mother every year put up 100 quarts each of cucumbers, sweet corn, tomatoes, and squash — “nobody ate zucchini,” she said.

Her family’s way of life on a small self-sustaining farm has all but disappeared as the Midwest now has 500-accre spreads for corn and soybeans. “The whole landscape has changed; it’s depopulated,” said Rosenblum.

She is the only one of her siblings who didn’t settle in a city. She lives on the outskirts of Altamont where she tends to all manner of gardens — a flower garden, an herb garden, a shade garden, and a day-lily garden.

And that’s not even mentioning the vegetables. Known as the Tomato Lady, Rosenblum recalls how, as kids, she and her brother would scout the garden to pick the first two dozen tomatoes and eat them, with just salt. Now, she starts about 760 plants in 45 square feet of her cellar, using fluorescent lights to make them grow. She sells those plants at an annual sale for the Master Gardeners.

Rosenblum is one of the original Master Gardeners, a group of volunteers that formed in New York State in 1977 and is still going strong. She had long used the resources at the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Voorheesville when the group formed. As a Master Gardener, she volunteers to answer people’s questions by phone, gives lectures, works at the cooperative’s vegetable garden, and helps at booths at farmers’ markets and the Altamont Fair.

“Some people have never gardened; they’ve had no contact with growing things” said Rosenblum. “We work with children on school gardens.”

Voorheesville Elementary and Farnsworth Middle School are among the local schools that have gardens. We’ve written before about the advantage of learning lessons, from math — counting seeds and planning plots — to biology, at the end of a hoe. We’ve also written, particularly at Farnsworth, about how the involvement of the community enriches the learning.

Just this spring, we learned of another advantage of kids gardening. Cornell University conducted a two-year study of a dozen elementary schools in New York State and discovered that children at schools with gardens were more physically active at school than before their school had garden; kids sat for 84 percent of an indoor class but for only 15 percent of their time in a garden class. More importantly, the students with a school garden were substantially less sedentary at home than their counterparts without.

In short: Access to nature boosts children’s physical and mental health.

So how did Rosenblum get from helping children to helping prisoners garden?

Several years ago, she read an article in one of her gardening magazines on the gardens at Chicago’s Cook County jail.

“I thought growing their own vegetables would be a wonderful thing to do,” she said.

Getting the project up and running took a while. She credits Nancy Vigianni from the Albany City School District Incarcerated Youth Program for carrying through with the idea.

Rosenblum went to the county jail this spring to help site the beds framed with wooden timbers, so that they would be exposed to sunlight. They’ve been planted with cabbage, squash, beans, cucumber, eggplant — and, of course, tomatoes.

The plan is for the inmates to harvest the vegetables — grown from donated plants — and, in turn, donate them to local food pantries for needy families: a contribution to society.

Gardening will be fulfilling their own needs, too.

To Rosenblum’s way of thinking, “A lot of people suffer from nature deficit disorder,” she said. “They have no contact with growing things. It’s empowering to learn how to grow something you can use.”

We agree with her. Many of us have gotten used to buying our food under the florescent lights of a supermarket. We’ve forgotten the feel of the sun on our back and dirt under our fingernails. We’ve missed not just the labor but the pride that comes in working the land to grow our own food.

Perhaps these gardening tasks will free the spirits of the county inmates as they work the good earth surrounded by razor wire. We hope so.

We commend Phyllis Rosenblum for planting the seed of an idea for this project, and the sheriff and donors for supporting it — like sturdy stakes for lanky tomato plants. We hope it continues to grow and flourish.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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