Prison Gardens Are Cultivating Seeds of Change
This scenario is true … but it's also a job most would decline.
The scorching sun is unrelenting. The workers shovel the hardened ground using whatever modest garden tools they can find. Some loosen the dirt with repurposed broom handles. Others dig with their bare hands, pounding out clots of dirt to transform them into workable soil. Blistering sunburn and suffocating humidity are just part of the job — a job they volunteered to do. There's even a waiting list for the chance to work 10-hour days in the dirt and heat.
In the shadow of penitentiary walls, abandoned prison grounds and neglected fields are being transformed into vibrant vegetable gardens by the calloused hands of inmates.
Although prison gardens essentially dried up in the 1970s, the concept has again taken root with a growing emphasis to nurture inmate rehabilitation. In correctional facilities all across the United States, from Texas to California to New York and points in between, inmates are working the land … and the land is working on them.
After they prepare the soil and plant the seeds, the gardens are watered — often solely dependent upon the rainclouds. Soon the seeds sprout and push through the dirt as if reporting for duty. The colorful crops flourish and appear to compete for attention — yellow squash, green beans, purple eggplant. Cabbage, corn and watermelon wave high the banner of hope as tomatoes and sweet peppers ripen in the sun.
For the prison gardener, every brimming bushel basket is a reminder of the biblical principle of sowing and reaping – sowing the good seeds of honest work and reaping a bumper crop of produce and pride.
Each truckload of harvested bounty reaffirms the gardener's purpose. Fresh vegetables improve the prison diet … and more so, surrounding schools, food banks, senior centers and local charities benefit from the abundance as the garden gives back. Annually, hundreds of tons of fresh produce feed the hungry of all ages. In one Minnesota town, every third grade student receives a pumpkin each October — each grown in the local prison garden.
The Bible says,
"Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor,
doing honest work with his own hands,
so that he may have something to share with anyone in need."
Ephesians 4:28 (ESV)
Season after season, the prison gardeners develop skills to prepare them for employment opportunities upon their release from prison — such as irrigation, soil conservation, organic gardening, even landscaping. And for the inmate who will never be released, there's the satisfaction of accomplishing important work — the doing good for others that brings them joy.
Working in the peaceful solitude of nature has a way of working on the mind. Hours of introspection gives them time to reflect on how differently their lives would have been had they spent more time cultivating good character rather than bad — had they spent more time in the garden and off the street.
As prisoners labor in those abandoned lots — salvaging them for a greater good — they imagine the same for themselves. Second chances. The mind negotiates with the heart with a new determination.
Things will be different when I'm released. … I'll 'weed out' toxic influences from my life. … My choices will be very different. … I'll work hard. … I'll remember the lessons I learned in the garden.
And many have done just that. In fact, a recent study of those who worked in prison gardens, reports a dramatic and encouraging decrease in the percentage of repeat felons with only 10% returning to prison. Given that the national recidivism rate is at 60%, prison gardens are indeed cultivating seeds of change — inmates are cleaning up their lives while getting their hands dirty.
Proverbs, the biblical book on wisdom, confirms this principle: "There is surely a future hope for you, and your hope will not be cut off" Proverbs 23:18 (NIV).
Does your mind draw a parallel? In the shadow of the steeple, in big cities and small towns, there are abandoned and neglected lives everywhere — imprisoned by abuse, impoverished by loss, impaired by neglect and impacted by defeat. Some believe they have no chances left. I'm too bad … too unlovable … too unforgivable. The harsh winds of life have eroded their faith and hardened their hearts.
In those unattended and alienated "gardens" around us, the biblical principle of sowing and reaping still holds true. We must be faithful to sow the seeds of God's truth — truth about His mercy and forgiveness. And when we do, the Master Gardener will cultivate new life that will reap new fruit. His specialty is making people new and he personally makes this point …
"I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you.
And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh."
Ezekiel 36:26 ESV
What about you?
God is a God of second chances. He is a God full of grace, a God who not only saves you from eternal death, but also saves you from a defeated life. Discouragement, defeat, and dejection are what the God of all grace can save you from! In your weakness, He will be your strength. In your loss, He will be your gain. How blessed you are to know the God of grace, who saves you from your failures. And yes, it's true — He really is the God of the second chance!