Inmates grow vegetables and earn credentials for life

September 6, 2011
prison garden
Inside the Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras, inmates tend a garden of about an acre. (Photo by Scott Marrs, DRCI)

CORVALLIS, Ore.— Handbooks for the Oregon State University Extension Master Gardener course rarely see as much use "on the outside" as they do in Oregon prisons. Bursting with notes and reminders, even drawings, the handbooks are valued property and each gardener-in-training gets one. Coursework DVDs serve as substitutes for access to the Internet.

While OSU Master Gardeners traditionally enjoy volunteer work at help desks and in demonstration gardens at county Extension offices, inmates in nine of Oregon's 14 prisons can expand the Master Gardener role and grow vegetables inside concrete walls.

"The Master Gardener course is significant," said Sarah Patterson, who three years ago brought gardening expertise to Oregon prisoners in a program called Lettuce Grow. Inmates can earn an OSU Extension Certificate of Home Horticulture while in prison and are welcome to eventually do volunteer work to complete their Master Gardener designation. So far, 10 inmates have passed the vigorous curriculum and with scores of at least 94 percent.

 "Their Home Horticulture Certificate gives them credentials," Patterson said, "which will be very important when they begin their job search." They're also growing vegetables; some 60,000 pounds were served in prison cafeterias last year and more than 20,000 pounds donated to local food banks.

Gardening classes have started in two of the correction facilities and a third is planned. At the Columbia River correctional facility in Portland an inmate who is a teacher leads a class on composting, organizes study groups and develops quizzes to use system-wide. The Santiam facility has an ongoing group class.

Younger inmates, aged 18 to 24, in the MacLaren Youth facility also will learn within prison walls to amend soil, plant seeds and harvest vegetables in a beginning pilot project that has 70 raised beds ready to go.

"Guest speakers come in to talk about how farming and gardening can become an important part of life on the outside," Patterson said. "We hope to integrate our graduates into local county Master Gardener programs when they get out," she said.

"It would be difficult to find a more dedicated group of students," said guest lecturer Gail Langellotto, statewide coordinator of the OSU Master Gardener program. "I was amazed to see their copious and careful notes on their readings and DVD lecture. Their questions were thoughtful, and they were engaged with the material the entire time. They were an educator's dream: a group of folks who sincerely and enthusiastically want to learn."

The OSU Master Gardener and OSU Lifelong Learning programs have supported the nonprofit Lettuce Grow organization with donated handbooks and DVDs, instructors and volunteers. Patterson encourages master gardeners interested in volunteer work with Lettuce Grow to find more information on the Lettuce Grow website.

Author: Judy Scott
Source: Sarah Patterson