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How a correctional garden is cultivating inmate rehabilitation

Not only does the Mendocino County Jail garden provide a significant amount of produce for the jail’s kitchen, it offers inexpensive inmate rehabilitation therapy


By Zohar Zaied, C1 Contributor 

On any given weekday, you can find gardener John Holt and his crew working in the perimeter of Northern California’s Mendocino County Jail. The crew is comprised of inmates serving county jail and local prison sentences. They start most days with a cup of coffee in the jail’s kitchen and with some conversation.

Holt encourages his crewmembers to talk to him and each other. The prior pastor tells them to look out for each other as each member navigates the challenges that come from living in a correctional institution. Holt also prods every man on his crew to do some serious self-inspection in preparation of an inevitable return to the community.

Holt came to the jail in the fall of 2012 from the Spotswood Estate gardens, home of the Seabiscuit Performing Arts Center in Potter Valley, CA. His gardening career started at age five, on his grandmother’s rural Pennsylvania property.

When he agreed to take on the jail’s garden project, Holt found the grounds were overgrown with weeds and compacted garden beds filled with rocks. He remembers the garden was dubbed “the Stony Jail Garden” by the first group of inmates he trained. The garden has been transformed over the past five years and today, the rocks sifted from the garden beds make up some of the flowerbeds, which line most of the jail’s secured walkways.

Inmate training

It takes Holt about a month to train a new crewmember on the basics necessary to work in a garden. During that time, Holt mixes in his own contribution to the individual’s rehabilitation and potentially successful reentry into society.

The inmates he works with must be sentenced to serve time at the jail, show a pattern of good behavior to be housed in the jail’s work wing and be cleared to work with civilians. While Holt cannot specifically choose his crew, he does have the option to bar an inmate’s participation in his program.

The garden provides a soft visual contrast to the institutional setting of the correctional facility. It is also a source of relaxation for staff, according to Corrections Lieutenant Joyce Spears. The veteran corrections staffer watched the garden develop into its current incarnation over the past few decades. Corrections deputies walk through the gardens every time they check the security of the perimeter, often stopping to pick a strawberry or tomato.

Jail garden provides savings in several ways

The organic (uncertified) garden provides a significant amount of produce to the jail’s kitchen. Holt maintains a hand-written record of the fruits and vegetables his crew harvest. In 2017, the garden crew brought in over 5 tons of produce, used by the kitchen to prepare meals for the 301-bed facility.  

The jail’s kitchen supervisor, Peggy Luna estimates she saves close to $100 every time she uses strawberries from the garden at lunch service. No one has calculated the actual savings to the kitchen from the garden’s harvests, but according to the California-based Fresh Produce and Floral Council, the average price for a pound of produce in 2017 was $1.69. At that rate, local taxpayers see an approximate gross savings of $17,000 annually. That’s not bad for a program with a $20,000 annual budget. The garden is funded by the jail’s inmate services program, which collects a portion of all money’s spent by inmates on phone calls and commissary.

A more significant savings to the taxpayers however comes from the potential to reduce recidivism at the local incarceration level, an effort that lines up with Holts true mission. The average cost to house an inmate at a county jail amounts to $117 per day in California. That adds up to nearly $42,000 per year. The national average is much less, costing around $33,000 to incarcerate one person for one year. The Associated Press, in 2017, reported the cost to incarcerate one state prison inmate in California was $75,000. 

California’s oldest operating state prison, San Quentin was the first prison in the state to develop a vegetable garden within its walls.

According to Planting Justice, the state inmates involved in San Quentin’s garden program have a 10 percent recidivism rate thanks to program follow-up and meaningful employment opportunities for inmates upon their release from prison. That number is significantly lower than the national average. A recent Pew Charitable Trusts study shows over 40 percent of inmates nationally return to state prison within three years of their release.

“Any gardener can manage the soil, plant starts and harvest in the fall. The real job is offering guidance,” said Holt.  He often asks the men he works with, “What are you going to do while you’re in here before you get out to make sure that when you’re out of here, you won’t come back?”

Holt calls on all his garden crewmembers to participate in an “alternative thought process.” His challenge to the inmates is to “find the alternative to how (they have) been living.” He encourages them to inspect their lives and inspect themselves, truly exploring the reasons they return to jail. Holt tells an inmate, “You have to get it into your own head that you’re a decent person. More so then when you came in (to jail.)”

Inexpensive inmate rehabilitation therapy

Sitting in his office, looking at a dry erase board filled with potential projects, the Mendocino County Jail’s Inmate Services Coordinator and Holt’s boss, William Feather offers his perspective on the jail’s garden: “It’s the most inexpensive form of therapy we can offer inmates.”

Feather says a garden – specifically a vegetable garden – has a transformative effect on inmates as they get to raise a plant, nurture it and have some responsibility for the plant’s survival.

“Then you get to see the benefit of your labor to others,” said Feather, who points out every inmate and some staff end up eating some food raised by the garden crew.

In the fall of 2017, the jail partnered with Mendocino Community College and sent two inmates from the garden crew to attend the College’s Fall Vegetable Gardening class. The agriculture department head Jim Xerogeanes was so impressed with one inmate’s dedication to the class and to helping others in the class, he offered him a job.

It wasn’t the first time the professor saw potential in someone who needed a break. Jake Kyle – a former inmate who turned to gardening as part of his personal rehabilitation plan – is Xerogeanes’ agriculture technician and runs the day-to-day operations at the agriculture department. In 2009, Kyle’s sister convinced him to take a college class with her, the same class he would help teach inmates years later. Kyle did well and found he had a passion for the educational garden setting. The following semester, Xerogeanes offered Kyle a job. Kyle worked and studied at the college and eventually earned an associates degree, promoting within the agriculture department to the position he holds today.

Xerogeanes extends a stream of job opportunities to his students. He says he is able to connect some of his students with meaningful jobs in the grape, landscaping and other industries connected to agriculture, often starting well above minimum wage. William Feather hopes some of these jobs could help inmates at the county jail return to the community as productive citizens. 


About the Author
Zohar Zaied works as a correctional officer in California.  

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