Giving female offenders healthy work for today, skills for tomorrow

August 3, 2016
female offenders aliceby Alice Topaloff, Program Assistant, Local Foods Team

In the spring of 2015, I somehow came across a video of “Garden for Good.” This is a program in Kansas which trains prison inmates as Master Gardeners. I told my friend (and coworker) Courtney Long how great I thought this program was. She suggested I talk to Julie Stevens, an Iowa State University landscape architecture professor.

Julie has been working with the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (ICIW) in Mitchellville since 2011. That’s when the prison’s warden asked ISU for help with landscaping during a rebuild project.

Since 2011, Julie, her students, and various inmates have been working on awesome projects. They include three multipurpose outdoor classrooms, a decompression area for staff, and a healing garden for the women with special needs. Last year, the crew piloted a one-acre vegetable garden. The produce they grew was used by the institution’s food services. The garden was a huge success! Everybody agreed the program should be expanded and broadened. We envision a training program where inmates and students can learn planning, gardening, and job skills.

female offenders gardenAnd that’s where I started to get involved. I’ve been researching different garden training programs in prison settings in the US, and looking for funding to start such a program.

Starting a training program

In the fall of 2015, we received a $75,000 Wellmark Foundation match grant that helped us launch the training program. Between December 2015 and April 2016, Julie and I and a couple of her students went to Mitchellville every week. We met with ICIW inmates, staff (including security officers, maintenance staff, food service staff, and administration). Together we are working to plan the gardens and design a training curriculum.

female offenders production
In 2015, the garden crew harvested more than a ton of produce.

We took advantage of the wonderful resources at ISU Extension and Outreach to provide some of the content for the curriculum.

Lina Rodriguez Salamanca, “the plant doctor” at the Plant and Insect Diagnostic Clinic, came to present on plant diseases and control. Diana Cochran, assistant professor of horticulture, taught us about harvest and post-harvest handling. We also brought books and extension publications on topics such as composting, planting calendars, soil health and record-keeping. And we worked with the garden crew to design materials adapted to the prison setting.

Getting into the garden

Last May, we tilled the garden beds, brought in 12 dump trucks full of compost, and started planting. So far, the garden crew has harvested zucchini, yellow squash, radishes, onions, green beans, carrots, and peppers. But not all of the produce grown is going to food services. The women thought it was important for them to donate some of the produce to local food pantries. Last week, with the help of Aubrey Martinez, coordinator of Eat Greater Des Moines, I dropped off totes full of eggplants, beets, and Swiss chard at the DMARC food pantry in Des Moines.

female offenders squashThere are about 10 women on the crew at any given time. Every week, we appoint a new “Garden Manager,” “Record Keeper” and “Tool Queen.” They are in charge of running the show. My role is just to make sure everything is going the way it should (which it never does, but you know ­– it’s farming!) I take care of logistics, and bring resources and expert opinions from the outside when needed.

This has been one of the best experiences of my life. I love working with the garden crew and have learned so much from them. They are some of the most resilient, determined, and best problem-solvers I know.

What I have learned:

  • I am privileged (I’ll leave it at that for now).
  • Gardening inside a prison is no joke. The only tools the women can use without supervision are plastic hand trowels. And they’ve been watering close to three acres of vegetable gardens with watering cans.
  • Seed and gardening companies in Iowa are amazingly generous. I would like to acknowledge SWIFT Greenhouses in Marshalltown. Without their help, we wouldn’t be growing half of what is growing now.
  • ISU Extension and Outreach field specialist Joe Hannan knows everything about vegetables.
  • Prisons are more about reentry than they are about punishment.
  • The local food scene in Iowa is great. And it could be even greater if it reached people with different backgrounds.
  • Drug abuse and mental health issues are huge and underfunded challenges in Iowa.
female offenders thank you
Women offenders created thank you cards for businesses who donated seeds to the prison garden project.

What about next steps for this season?

1) In the garden, keep harvesting and plant a fall crop.

2) Raise funds to build a greenhouse this fall, so the garden crew can grow their own transplants.

3) Build a more systematic way to connect the women on the garden crew to the “local food scene” when they leave prison. Several of them are now interested in starting their own farming operation. Others would like to use the skills they’ve learned in future jobs.