Behind prison walls, gardening program takes root

Posted: June 03, 2012

LANCASTER — They sold drugs and shoplifted. One hosted a party at which a teen drank too much and died.

Another is bipolar, and if she’s not taking her medicine, her manic behavior gets her into trouble.

What they have done is never far from their minds.

But for a time on this overcast, muggy day, what they were mostly thinking about was onions — onions and peppers and hoeing a straight line in the soft dirt in an enclosed yard surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire.

"You can plant it deep," said Betty Beck, a master gardener from Pennsylvania State University, as she helped three female inmates at Lancaster County Prison position some pepper plants in a garden in their exercise yard, just outside their cell block. "It will form roots."

There is talk of Grandma’s garden and fresh tomato sandwiches as the women kneel in the dirt. And there is a little dreaming going on.

"There wouldn’t be nothing like looking out that window at a flower," a woman in a blue prison uniform said, gesturing over her shoulder at her housing block and sighing. "Zinnias would be awesome."

The Lancaster City Health Department and Lancaster County Prison have teamed up to plant two gardens at the prison.

The first-time program will allow two groups of inmates to grow their own vegetables and flowers, learn a little bit about gardening and nutrition, and share the fruits of their labor with three agencies that provide housing and child care for women in the city.

But there is more going on here than just cultivation, insect control, and hoeing.

"I love this program," said inmate Jolene McMahan, 28. "It gives me something to look forward to."

"When we finished this," she said of the 20-by-30-foot garden, "I was ecstatic. I thought, ‘I can do something, and finish it!’ It’s not something I’m good at. It makes me feel like I can start my life over and do something different with it."

Kim Wissler, city health officer, said the program grew out of a desire to promote healthy eating.

"Why not have a community garden in the prison and let them experience what the community at large is doing?" she said.

The prison wanted to provide a community service from the program, which is why it is donating the produce to Milagro House, Clare House, and Mom’s House, agencies that aid women in need.

Maj. Edward Klinovski, a corrections officer, helped to oversee the tilling and planting of the gardens, which were funded by a small grant. Some supplies were donated.

"From what I have seen, they are excited," he said of the inmates. "One young lady is getting out this Thursday, and she was a little upset she was getting out and had to leave the garden. She’s going to grow one at home."

Master gardeners from the Penn State Extension program will regularly visit the prison to provide guidance, education, and encouragement.

For the inmates, the gardens are about growing in many ways.

"It’s good therapy for me to just get out, and leave your mind and take the stress off your body," Phillip Murray, 24, said. "It’s better than being inside all day. You get to breathe fresh, clean air."

"To be outside, in good weather," William Collazo, 54, said, "and constantly maintain and see something that we started grow — it’s just something different."

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