People who are incarcerated in the Mecklenburg County jail can learn horticulture through a partnership with master gardeners. Courtesy Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office.

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When Matthew Kerns was sentenced to serve 30 months at Central Jail in Charlotte, his focus was not on his post-release plans. But in the months leading up to his pending release in April, Kerns has set his sights on an unusual dream: growing a garden and raising fish in an aquaponics system.

Because of a creative program during his incarceration, he has the skills to make it happen.

Horticulture training, offered by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in partnership with the Mecklenburg County Extension Master Gardeners, gives those at high risk of reoffending valuable skills for work after incarceration.

For many young inmates, the experience is a novel approach to understanding how seeds develop into plants and exploring the source of their food, said master gardener Bill Sloan, who has taught the three-week sessions for the past four years.

“Horticulture knowledge, depending on where you grew up, skipped generations,” Sloan said. “It’s a light bulb moment for them to see a seed germinate.”

The lessons are based on the Mecklenburg County Extension Master Gardener curriculum and include the basics of soil health, composting, soil diseases and plant maintenance to turn seeds into fresh fruits and vegetables. Aquaponics and hydroponics are also part of the curriculum. 

For Kern, who also worked in the kitchen and laundry, attending the horticulture class and other pre-release programs and earning certificates of completion provided a sense of accomplishment. The time spent in the greenhouse was a bonus.

“Even though it’s just a piece of paper, those certificates mean something. … I feel like I’m not wasting time, like I’m getting things accomplished, (and) it makes you feel better to learn something,” he said. “For those few select hours working in the greenhouse, I felt like I wasn’t incarcerated.”

Each session accommodates up to eight inmates and includes a combination of classroom lessons and hands-on training that takes place in the greenhouse at the Sheriff’s Office vocational skills center adjacent to the detention center on Statesville Road. 

Because of the success of the adult program, the sheriff’s office also introduced horticulture training to its juvenile population. Last spring, four new raised beds were built at the 72-bed detention center where young offenders watch fragile seeds grow into thriving plants such as broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and kale. 

Sloan volunteers to teach inmates while local agencies and community partners donate seeds, soil and gardening tools. In the process of learning vocational skills, inmates also give back to the local community. 

The vegetables grown at the juvenile detention center are donated to community agencies and food pantries or distributed to staff, and the seedlings produced in the adult training program are distributed to local community gardens through the park and recreation department. Since 2016, inmates have grown more than 35,000 vegetable plants that were donated to community gardens.

“It’s a way to give back to the community from the hands of a population typically deemed to be selfish and not caring about others,” said Dorian Johnson, the sheriff’s office director of adult programs. “(We wanted) them to have some investment and buy-in and broaden their thinking in how they served their time and what they should be involved in once they get out.”

Building abilities

The program does more than teach the basics of gardening and help feed the local community. The goal is to address the issues that contribute to repeat offenses, including lack of job skills, according to Johnson.

“The horticulture program, as well as our other (training) programs, are driven by data that shows what vocational skills are needed and predicted to have the most openings, the highest probability of getting hired and friendly toward persons who have been justice involved,” he explained.

The program appears to be working. In 2019, the recidivism rate, or the percentage of offenders who return to jail after their release, is just under 21%, while the latest federal data shows that national recidivism rates are 37 percent.

“We are trending in the right direction,” Johnson added.

Sloan teaches the basics to ensure that even those who have never planted a single seed will have the knowledge to work for garden centers, greenhouses or landscaping companies.

“(Some) utilize the training to start taking care of more within their landscaping companies,” said Ellis Royster Jr., adult programs specialist for the sheriff’s office. “They went from them understanding what looked good to actually how to grow it and do it on their own.”

Daniel Vaughn worked as a mechanic before he was sentenced to 36 months at Central Jail. He did not sign up for the horticulture program with future job opportunities in mind but said, “It makes you learn something you can use on the outside to make money.” 

Because of the transient nature of the post-release population, the sheriff’s office does not keep quantitative data on the number of graduates from the horticulture program who found work in the field, but Johnson points to several positive examples, including one offender who secured a part-time job with a local greenhouse and worked up to a management position.

In the future, the sheriff’s office plans to use the fresh produce grown in the gardens as in a new culinary training program. The department is also working with a local greenhouse to develop curriculum based on its specific hiring needs in the hopes of creating a direct employment pipeline.

COVID-19 has put the entire adult horticulture program on hold. Inmates cannot adhere to social distancing guidelines during transport or while working in the greenhouse, but classes are still being held at the juvenile detention center, where the garden is outdoors and on-site.

Sloan recorded some of the training sessions to create a virtual classroom and plans to be back in the jail teaching as soon as the danger of COVID-19 is over.

“These individuals who are in our custody … got here due to some sort of challenges that were unaddressed,” Johnson said.

“(When they are released), they are definitely prepared to be successful. The person who gets arrested is very different than the person who gets released.”

Jodi Helmer

Jodi Helmer is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Stanly County. Send an email to info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact her or any members of the CPP news team.

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