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These Guys Went To Jail And Learned How To Feed A Community

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"He who plants a garden believes in the future." (Author Unknown)

Last week, thousands of people filed into the Philadelphia Convention Center for the city’s annual flower show—the largest and oldest in the country. The event, hosted by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, gives us all a chance to marvel at the spectacular beauty created when man plants a garden.

The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society (PHS) has planted roots in this city, though, that extend far beyond the weeklong visual splendor of the Flower Show—down into the cracks in society, and into the lives of the people who fall through them.

A large portion of the proceeds from the International Flower Show—and other PHS-hosted events—goes toward nonprofit programs and services started by the 187-year-old nonprofit to carry out its stated mission: “To improve the quality of life and create a sense of community through horticulture.”

PHS supports the unification and beautification of communities throughout the city by funding public landscapes, mass tree-plantings, neighborhood parks and communal gardens.

City Harvest
PHS also combats hunger in Philadelphia through its City Harvest program, an initiative to help community gardeners grow food for impoverished people. “Access to affordable healthy food in Philadelphia is a significant problem,” says Claire Baker, Director of Gardening Programs at PHS.

PHS believes that part of the solution to this problem is to grow fresh, healthy food through urban gardening—and to forge what they term “sustainable cross sector partnerships” to get the food to the people who need it. Since its start in 2006, the program has directly grown and donated 106 tons of produce and generated a number of green jobs.

Roots to Re-Entry
One exceptional component of City Harvest tackles another serious social problem in Philly, one you wouldn’t expect a horticultural society to take on: the reintegration of ex-offenders back into society.

Roots to Re-Entry is a comprehensive ex-prisoner rehabilitation program: A well-orchestrated collaboration between PHS and entities across several sectors, including The Philadelphia Prison System, the Career Support Network (CSN), the Defender Association and the District Attorney’s office.

The program helps inmates cultivate a new skill set in horticulture while they serve their time. Once released, the program helps them find stable jobs and supports their successful transition back into civil society.

The program is a long and gradual process that requires patience and hard work. And like all things grown to last, it starts with the planting of a seedling.

Sowing the Seeds of Successful Reintegration
PHS staff members work with a small group of inmates in the program, teaching them how to plant and tend seedlings in the onsite prison garden and greenhouse. The participants are carefully selected from a pool of nonviolent offenders who have been pre-approved for parole or work release. “We want candidates to be engaged and interested, wanting to get involved with the program on their own,” explains Fran Lawn, PHS’s fittingly named Director of Landscape Management and Training.

roots to reentry men

After four weeks, the seedlings are transplanted to over 40 community gardens throughout the city, where City Harvest volunteers continue to grow them. The inmates who grew them aren’t done yet, though—they must complete 14 weeks of training before reentering the community.

All the men take part in workshops on health and job-readiness. And in addition to the hands-on gardening experience, participants gain expertise in organic food production, tree tending and the basics of landscaping. They learn skills in math, plant biology and species identification—not to mention valuable on-the-job experience in teamwork, diligence and leadership.

The next stage in the program is intensive, off-site job training at public gardens throughout the city. Here, the men focus on landscape management. They also continue their education in job readiness and life skills.

Finally, the prisoner is released on parole. But returning to society is often the hardest part.

Re-Entering the Community and Flourishing after Prison
A 2011 report by the Economy League found that 40% of released prisoners return to jail within three years of their release, and 60% remain unemployed one year after their release.

A returning citizen with a record—and a lack of skills, an education and a social network—is unlikely to find a job to support themselves. This rejection inevitably leads to a return to crime.

Roots to Re-Entry is effectively combatting that tendency by connecting their trainees with gainful employment—one of the most effective tools in fighting recidivism. PHS partners with local landscaping and contracting companies to match paroled graduates with job opportunities before they get out.

Equally important to the graduates’ success are the transitional services they continue to receive for up to two years after their release. In coordination with CSN, Roots to Re-Entry provides crucial mental and emotional health support to help the reentering citizens deal with the hurdles—such as substance abuse and anger management issues—that can easily derail their progress.

With his training and a strong support system, a graduate from the program is in a much better position than the average parolee. Mr. Lawn notes, “By having a strong network of services, individuals will be less likely to recidivate.” Since 2010, 63 of Roots to Re-Entry’s 72 graduates have successfully reentered the workforce.

“We are seeing positive trends,” says Mr. Lawn, “that point to reentry programs such as PHS Roots to Re-Entry having a positive impact on recidivism.”

Saving Green
While the program is still relatively small, every successfully reintegrated individual offers social and economic benefits that strengthen his community. The Economy League’s report estimates that connecting just 100 formerly incarcerated people with employments would save over $2 million a year and generate an additional $1.9 million in annual wage taxes.

Lawn attributes Roots to Re-Entry’s success to the collective impact model it operates on to scale the typical barriers to reentry. “We have been able to work collaboratively with partners from prisons, courts, funders, nonprofits [and] employers to address reentry issues on a systematic level,” he explains.

And the long-term, all-encompassing structure of the training  has proved to be effective in rehabbing participating ex-offenders.

“We learned that in order to maximize outcomes, ongoing comprehensive support must be provided to address the multiple needs of participants and their families… through an integrated approach during pre-employment and employment phases.”

All of these elements come together to support the vigorous and sustainable growth of Roots to Re-Entry’s participants—a transformation that begins in the earth, in the most literal way. Though many of these men had never set foot in a garden before planting those first seedlings, they graduate the program with a profound appreciation of what many regard as one of the purest human pleasures: getting your hands dirty.

As graduate Quentin Davis puts it, “I never thought a tree could change my life, but it did.”

By Carolyn Todd

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  1. Given how wretchedly broken our prison system is, it’s nice to see people taking positive steps in the right direction. This made me smile.

  2. This is one of my favorite OMaaT articles to date. What a truly wonderful organization! The combination of therapy and utility is lovely.

  3. “Access to affordable healthy food in Philadelphia is a significant problem,” Gosh so glad you guys agree! And something is being done about it!

  4. It is so inspiring to see how much one can truly flourish if given the opportunity. <3 Bravo Omaat!

  5. This is incredible. These are skills that can really benefit them in the future especially the skills in organic food production.

  6. It is deeply heartening to see such a positive and practical program in effect. Well researched report. Thanks for putting this out

  7. wonderful! everyone benefits. Thank you for giving a 2nd chance. Everyone is capable of change and growth, thank you for seeing the potential and possibility!

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