The idea of prison horticulture will not be unfamiliar to those who enjoyed Clive Owen as a convict who finds redemption through gardening. In fact, the film Greenfingers is based on the true story of Leyhill prisoners who won two gold medals for their horticultural efforts at the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, opened a 1,000-acre arboretum, and supplied plants and organically grown vegetables to surrounding towns and other prisons. Sadly, though, I saw this comment on the imdb site: “Gardening is pretty much a national sport in England, so perhaps the movie makes more sense to the Brits than us in the states.”
Perhaps so. Perhaps the whole thought of prisoners doing anything but being held at bay by guards with automatic weapons is unfamiliar to American filmgoers as well. It was therefore inspirational to me to hear of the efforts of James Jiler , who for ten years has been directing the GreenHouse program at the Rikers Island jail complex. The men and women working under Jiler’s guidance have not only been creating a lovely and useful series of gardens and landscapes on the extensive Rikers Island complex—they have contributed to community gardens, tree replacement programs, and horticultural businesses throughout Manhattan. Jiler has taught Rikers Island inmates about sustainable practice as well as contemporary landscaping, and—in spite of their necessarily brief tenures in the GreenHouse program (Rikers is basically a holding center)—many former prisoners have garnered the building blocks of a lifelong career.
I read about all this in Jiler’s recent book, Doing Time in the Garden (New Village Press, 2006). Jiler works with the New York Horticultural Society, a non-profit, which is instrumental in funding the GreenHouse program. I’ll have more information about GreenHouse, as well as other prison horticultural programs, in an upcoming post, which will include an interview with Jiler. Do you have such a program in your area? Do you think horticulture can help combat the seemingly hopeless cycle of criminal “justice” culture in America?