They Too Shall Garden

Coffee Creek inmate gardeningMurderers, child sexual predators, heroin dealers, identity theft perpetrators, robbers and burglars. Perhaps not the ‘type’ you would want living near you. But they do. We delude ourselves by believing that we are surrounded by law-abiding citizens who have driver’s licenses and car insurance, pay taxes and obey all the rules.

Eventually, many of them are arrested, tried and incarcerated for their crimes. What happens to them next?

For many lucky felons, they become students. They have an opportunity to learn about nature, plants and, in many cases, take the first serious science-based gardening classes in their lives. Since 2009, a non-profit, Lettuce Grow, has been teaching Sustainable Gardening to prison inmates. Lettuce Grow, now under the umbrella of Growing Gardens, is providing courses leading to a certificate in Home Horticulture, enabling the recipient to become a Master Gardener, in 13 adult penal institutions and 4 juvenile correctional institutions in Oregon.

There are two programs providing formal gardening training at Oregon’s only female prison, Coffee Creek Correctional Institution. The first is Seed to Supper, a basic gardening course partnering the Oregon Food Bank with Oregon State University. This program is also offered in communities throughout Oregon, primarily to low-income adults interested in learning how to become self-sustainable, often in food ‘wastelands’ with no resources to healthy food.

The second program administered through Lettuce Grow/Growing Gardens is the Sustainable Gardening course. This is a twelve-module course, with subjects such as botany, soils, pathogens, insects, pesticides and vegetable gardening. It is a college-level course, and students are expected to understand (and learn) basic chemistry, taxonomy and soil science. No mean feat for the majority of the students who have an eighth grade education!

The Sustainable Gardening course is taught by a variety of gardening experts, ranging from seasoned Master Gardeners to teachers of the Seed to Supper course. Oregon State University, Oregon’s agricultural studies university, has been a partner and resource facility for both of these teaching entities.

Since the inception of the Lettuce Grow project, over 600 inmates have taken the course, and most have passed the rigorous examination. For many, this is the first academic achievement they have ever reached. Some may go on to become Master Gardener volunteers with OSU; others, with economic and social challenges, will be able to use their Certificate of Home Horticulture to work in the horticulture industry, especially if they have no other employment skills.

And many inmates are able to use the training they receive from both Seed to Supper and Sustainable Gardening to provide hands-on gardening in the half acre Coffee Creek garden. Six to twelve women inmates provide full-time gardening work, providing 5000 to 6000 pounds of produce to the kitchens of the Minimum and Medium Security facilities of Coffee Creek, with ten percent being donated to the Wilsonville Community Center. Several groups have donated funds to help the garden with compost, seedlings and pollinator friendly plants for Silverspot butterflies.

The Sustainable Gardening course would cost students approximately $450 in the Portland metropolitan area (and varies by county outside of there.) Inmates receive the training manual (value of $30) and their instruction is free. Contributions may be made to Growing Gardens/Lettuce Grow through this link: https://www.growing-gardens.org/lettuce-grow/

Kris LaMar is a Master Gardener and has been volunteering at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville in the ‘gardening’ component of their Family Preservation Project. 

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