Planting a future

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Greenhouse skills rehabilitate prison inmates

When you plant a garden, it means you believe in tomorrow. For some inmates at Mohawk Correctional Facility in Rome, N.Y., that notion is especially true.

Inmates in the prison garden.

Twice a day, 20 men gather in the prison's greenhouse, where a colorful riot of flowers grows. The men, sent to the medium-security facility on charges such as arson, rape and criminal possession of an illegal substance, are hoping the time they spend here will help them find jobs as floral designers, horticulture specialists or landscape gardeners when their tomorrows come.

PEF member and vocational instructor Steven Drake has taught horticulture to state inmates for 18 years. "It's a diverse program," he says. "The inmates learn every aspect of horticulture, including all work related to nursery and garden centers, greenhouses, landscaping, floral design and ground maintenance. They can become proficient in 17 different job titles."

Meanwhile, they grow nearly 80,000 annuals a year, which find their way to gardens all over the state, including the Utica State Office Building, the Utica County state troopers' barracks and SUNY's Institute of Technology. They make evergreen wreaths for the holidays, and in summer, donate homegrown vegetables to Rome's rescue mission.

"We spend a great deal of energy assisting community-service projects," says Drake. And state officials use the flowers, too. There was even a request from the governor's mansion.

But the program is about more than floral décor. It's about planting new ideas so inmates can build better lives for themselves.

"These men are here for many different reasons," says PEF member Andrew Criscolo, who supervises Mohawk's vocational programs. "The horticultural program and our other programs not only teach them to have skills working with their hands, but foster a sense of pride."

"You watch things start from the very beginning, a seedling growing into a small plant," says inmate John Smith. "When you transfer it to the outside, you can watch it grow larger and larger, and that gives you a feeling of satisfaction."

Even reluctant participants can benefit, say Drake and Criscolo, who rely on persistence and patience to grow the program. "With the right motivation from instructors and peers, they come to realize if they step forward and move forward, they can actually succeed at something," says Drake. "It may take six months to more than a year, but we don't give up. We want each of them to have a chance to enjoy tomorrow."

(Thanks to The Communicator (PEF's official publication) and writer Deborah A. Miles for this article and photo.)