Greenfingers, Rikers-style



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.”

The Rikers Island greenhouse pathway, in 4 seasons.

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?

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. My husband works in a county jail as a computer tech. In the old days the inmates worked on the jail farm and produced most of what they ate – vegetables and meat they raised themselves. The farm is long gone, as is the good food they raised and the opportunity for useful work, and possibly gaining new skills. I believe the rationale for eliminating the farm was that as a county jail inmates are not there for a long period of time, but your posting suggests that this need not be an insurmountable preventive. Thank you for mentioning this book which I will get immediately.

  2. Jessup, a 128-year-old maximum security correctional facility in Maryland, just closed this year – they had a long-time horticulture program – including greenhouses and growing their own veggies to eat. I know some Master Gardeners who taught classes and volunteered there for years. I’d hazard a guess that less strict facilities would have even more access to growing fields and programs.

  3. There were gardens at Alcatraz. And the better-behaved prisoners worked those gardens.,,HGTV_3655_1399812,00.html

    I know there are some programs at some prisons in NorCal where prisoners grow produce, but I can’t remember which prisons this takes place at.

    As for whether horticulture can help, I’d answer “yes”. But it’s a qualified yes. Clearly you need to be careful who you let have garden tools since they can easily be used as weapons. While I think our system of incarcerating without much rehabilitation is not good for the prisoner or for society, there’s a great deal of risk involved in being a lone program extending trust. All my adult life I’ve lived in neighborhoods plagued by hoods and, believe me, there are some really broken human beings out there who are incapable of being rehabilitated. As great as this would be to have in prisons, it’s even more important to have programs like this in elementary schools and juvie so that we can get to people before they’re too far gone.

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