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A gardening program in a North Carolina prison
A prison garden program in North Carolina, similar to the Colorado program described in this article (Photo: NC Dept of Public Safety, CC BY 2.0)

Correctional facilities are places of strict obedience. Usually, prison yards are bleak, desolate and barren, making good on the promise that the state’s punishment will be insufferable.  

Sterling Correctional Facility is the Colorado Department of Corrections’ largest prison, housing nearly 2,500 incarcerated people in rural northeast Colorado, and is representative of a penitentiary whose primary purpose is punishment, restriction and confinement.  

There aren’t mountains dominating the landscape like there are at Buena Vista Correctional Facility in the center of the state, and there is no lush vegetation in the surrounding area like there is at Fremont Correctional Facility in south-central Colorado. Huge walls of concrete are all one sees during sentences served here.

So you can imagine my surprise when I arrived at this facility renowned for concrete and dirt and found a lone man, Timothy Nicholls, tending the soil, preparing it for gardening season. 

Nicholls, it turns out, is a man of unabashed faith. He arrived here in 2007 when SCF was considered to be an extremely violent place. But the culture shock of incarceration didn’t cloud his vision for service. 

SCF at the time was undergoing a drastic change in management philosophy toward “normalization,” the idea that the lives of incarcerated people should resemble “normal” life in free society as much as possible. Nicholls came up with the idea to start a produce garden using empty plots of dirt and sand.

Approaching then-Warden Matthew Hansen in 2015, Nicholls received the green light to be a green thumb. His primary motivation wasn’t to bring color and life to the bland yard, but to begin a relationship with the outside community by giving back. He wanted to grow vegetables and other produce to feed families in need. 

The Cooperating Ministries of Logan County, a local faith-based nonprofit that runs a number of programs to combat food insecurity, agreed to be a partner for Nicholls’ project. The organization used its own funds to purchase all the necessary agricultural tools and materials, including gardening tools, hoses and seeds. A local welding shop even designed, built and donated large soil shifters.

“[We were] determined to utilize the efforts of SCF residents willing to commit their time to a collaboration that would benefit the local community and assist households that experience food insecurity,” wrote Richelle Greenwood, the nonprofit’s executive director, in a letter responding to questions I had sent her by mail. Greenwood has been involved with the Volunteer Prison Community Gardening Project since the first garden’s second season. 

She further explained in her letter that the program was particularly valuable because the organization has a hard time obtaining fresh produce. Most of it comes from grocery store rescues, and the food items often arrive nearly outdated or expired. 

“The produce that is received from VPCGP arrives fresh, right from the garden, allowing for a more nutritional and wholesome product to be given to our clients,” she wrote, adding that the residents who participate in the program have a “true impact” on the lives of the most vulnerable populations in the community. 

Today, every spare plot on the southeast and southwest yards housing medium-custody state prisoners at SCF is devoted to gardening. 

The program grows zucchini, carrots, beets, sweet and hot peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, cucumbers, bush beans, loose leaf lettuce, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, green onions, purple potatoes, garlic and several kinds of radishes. It also grows pumpkins for Halloween; watermelons, green melons and cantaloupe; as well as herbs such as basil, thyme and cilantro. 

Incarcerated men have taken up more than a casual interest in their plots, and the yard is always bustling with groups cultivating the season’s crops. 

“It gives me hope in this environment to see that people take the time to contribute to the outside community in this way,” said William Davenport, a resident participant. “The positive reinforcement we get from harvesting the produce and donating it to the local community is truly a feat of rehabilitation because good behavior is contagious, and seldom … do we get a chance to know we made a difference.” 

For some people, community gardening has helped strengthen their faith. “I get tools to stay sober, maintain a routine, be productive and have a chance to be a mentor, all while feeding spiritual energy,” said Devon Howard.

Nicholls said he has seen a shift in the status quo at SCF since groups began participating in the volunteer project. Though many of them might not know who he is or why he started the garden, he is glad to offer everyone a chance to give back to the community. He expressed amazement at how diverse the volunteers were, showing what restorative justice is all about. 

For all of the program’s successes, however, it faces its share of challenges too. Sand and dirt is a fickle soil, yielding unpredictable crops. And limited supervision restricts the areas in which participants can grow their crops. 

Nicholls and Greenwood would like to see SCF formalize and expand the Volunteer Prison Community Gardening Project so its supply of fresh produce can meet the full demand of local clients experiencing food insecurity and hunger. 

For those of us who practice the Christian faith, the gospels teach us that we reap what we sow. Few activities embody that notion like gardening does. Gardening enables us to produce tangible results, achieve certain goals and, in the end, behold the fruits of our labor.

Greenwood shared with me an excerpt of a letter she wrote to Jeff Long when he had been the warden of SCF. In it, she told him that the project was an “undeniably worthwhile” collaboration with the prison because gardening builds valuable life skills and a sense of personal pride and self-confidence in participants. 

“While participants are learning self-awareness, team-building and gardening skills, they are also utilizing restorative justice and giving back to the community that surrounds them,” she wrote. “The ‘Garden Project’ creates an absolute environment for many to thrive … for those that created it and for those that benefit from the creators.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Keith C. Brooks Jr. is a writer incarcerated in Colorado.