COTTONWOOD – Community gardens in the area will get a jump-start on the growing season this year, thanks to a program at North Idaho Correctional Institution here that trains inmates in horticulture and greenhouse management.
The program, now in its fifth year, is certified through Lewis-Clark State College and provides inmates an eight- to 10-week course in which they learn to nurture seeds, manage a greenhouse environment and prepare seedling plants for distribution – free of charge – to community gardens and other nonprofit organizations.
“We’re teaching ornamental horticulture, which is a series of seven competency sections that were developed at the College of Southern Idaho and LCSC adopted,” said Bill Farmer, who oversees the education program at the prison.
“The guys can complete those seven areas of competency and that will be posted with the (Idaho) Department of Labor and employers can find it. It’s a skill-stack competency program that our vocational schools buy into.”
Once a week Stefenie Brimacomb, a teacher at Kamiah High School, comes to the prison to instruct the inmates on 30 hours of the course curriculum. In addition, inmates spend about 30 hours watching videos on computers about plant management and other horticulture topics, and another 30 hours doing hands-on tasks in the greenhouse.
The 30-foot-by-48-foot professional quality greenhouse was purchased for about $48,000 from a fund that had been intended for use at one of the southern Idaho prisons, but was not able to be utilized.
Farmer said he was advised to buy the best quality greenhouse he could afford, and he’s never regretted the decision.
“When (Dallas Neumann, of Grangeville,) came and built this, he said, ‘You won’t believe how this will transform your compound here,’ ” Farmer said. “ ‘You’ll see flowers and stuff growing; you’ll see landscaping, and you’ll see all sorts of things that bring attention to this.’ We’re kind of seeing some of that.”
The spacious nursery – oddly juxtapositioned among a compound of tall, razor-wire-topped chain-link fences – houses rows of raised beds constructed by inmates and several seed-potting zones. A vermiculture case contains a nucleus of earthworms that will be used to break down organic material into compost blended with soil amendments and mulch during the growing season.
And for the past three or four years, huge boxes of seeds from an anonymous nursery in southern Idaho “miraculously” appear, Farmer said, supplying the program with all the vegetable and flower seeds – and more – that it needs to continue the work. Farmer suspects that a mother of a former inmate initiated the donation of seeds.
Although the snow this winter reached to the top of the sidewalls of the greenhouse, Farmer said the inside of the greenhouse remained nice and cozy.
“We have strawberries that grow outside, and we have whistle pigs up here – yellow-bellied marmots,” he added. “So no human has ever eaten one of those strawberries. They grow really nicely before and after harvest but (the marmots) get them just exactly when they turn red.”
Most Idaho Department of Correction prisons have some type of gardening program, said Jeffrey F. Ray, public information officer for the department.
In a few weeks, inmates at the South Idaho Correctional Institution at Boise will begin the facility’s ninth year of growing fresh produce for the Idaho Foodbank.
Inmates at South Boise Women’s Correctional Center and Idaho State Correctional Center near Kuna grow sagebrush seedlings each year to help restore sage grouse habitat.
Last year, the Sagebrush in Prisons project produced almost 60,000 sagebrush and bitterbrush seedlings for habitat restoration, which is a cooperative program between the department of corrections, the Bureau of Land Management and the Institute for Applied Ecology.
Inmates at the women’s institution grew and helped plant 25,000 sagebrush bushes in recently burned areas.
Crew members attended lectures about Great Basin ecology and received certificates documenting their participation and achievements.
Inmates at the women’s center also have developed a high desert garden that includes several raised beds and a water feature surrounded by landscaping. The project helps inmates learn about sustainable living.
The Idaho Correctional Institution at Orofino has created a popular gardening program that provides fresh produce that supplements the diet of the nearly 570 minimum, medium and protective custody inmates there and at Cottonwood.
Farmer said programs such as the NICI greenhouse project give inmates valuable work skills that help prepare them for a better future once they’re out of prison.
“What are they going to do when they get out?” he said. “Definitely having activities, whether it’s gardening or working in the greenhouse, that has a purpose and these guys have a sense of that.
”They’re learning and choosing to learn. It’s a vocational program, but it’s a vocational program that has activity and hands in the dirt.“
Finding useful activities to help inmates learn skills that can benefit them outside of prison is a challenge for the correctional system, Farmer admits.
”You’ll always have that problem. If you’re not tying work to instruction in the prisons (the skill) just goes away. But if you tie it to instruction, those things come together to do something that I think is real, magical. Getting guys, emotionally, physically, spiritually, feeling good about what they’re going to do with work, their families and their communities, I think it works.“
Some of the inmates currently in their third week of the horticulture course have had a bit of past experience in gardening.
Because of department of correction guidelines, only the first names of inmates could be used in this story.
Christian, one of the inmates involved in the program, said he has worked in landscaping in the past but much of what he is learning in the greenhouse program is new.
”A lot of stuff, like cloning, I’ve never done before,“ he said. ”It will most definitely help me go back to the job I was working at. Gives me a lot more inside knowledge.“
Scott, an inmate who is enthusiastic about the science of soils and the proper way to plant seeds, said he used to work planting trees and shrubs but ornamental and vegetable gardening is new to him.
He is especially complimentary of Brimacomb for the information she has passed along to inmates.
”As I get out of NICI perhaps, maybe I can take this knowledge and get into an initial job at, maybe a nursery. I’m not sure where that’s going to fall.“
And Corey, who’s never been around a greenhouse environment, senses that the benefits reach far beyond the practical application of a classroom project.
“The working with the plants and stuff like that, it helps us all,” Corey said. “It relaxes us, and we more or less learn to work with nature and to be able to take it from a seedling and go all the way up to a full-grown plant. It makes you feel like you’ve accomplished something greater than yourself. It’s really soothing to walk in here.”
Out of every 100 inmates at NICI, Farmer said, all but about 15 eventually will be released on probation. Of those 85, about 70 will remain out of the prison system indefinitely, according to national statistics for the 180-day rider program.
Nationally about 64 to 66 percent of rider inmates never return to prison.
“You’ve got to have programs like this in order to make the substance abuse treatment and the education and those other things flourish,” Farmer said.
Inmates “walk away with more knowledge, and it’s just incredible to watch. And you watch the guys that it is therapeutic for, and they’re transformed out here.”
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.