The Department of Corrections recently announced that it will be awarding the Horticultural Society of New York $2.8 million to expand its horticultural therapy program at Rikers Island. Therapeutic horticulture uses plants and plant-related activities to improve the well-being participants. The educational program works with adult inmates from Rikers’ mental observation units, and teaches them how to tend and grow everything from cacti to ornamental plants to habanero peppers. Inmates are then able to turn some of their harvest into meals.
The gardening therapy program, called Greenhouse, started in the 1980s, and has developed over the years into a robust initiative that helps many inmates recover from trauma and also prepare for re-entry into society. The Horticultural Society provides remedial education, skill development and vocational training through the program, and inmates receive hands-on experience including designing, installing and maintaining multi-use gardens. Significant to the approach is a commitment to connect not with the ‘inmate’, but with the individual, looking past their status at Rikers and viewing them instead as gardeners.
The society also runs a program for youth that are between 19 and 21 years of age. This contract with the DOCCS will be pivotal in allowing the non-profit to further their impact, as to date all the funding for the project has been provided by donors. Yet despite the tight budget over the years, this long-running program has been influential to many working in both social service and education. Doing Time in the Garden, by James Jiler, a former director of the program, was published in 2006 and is studied and taught widely by those looking to implement a horticultural therapy program or looking for re-entry preparation techniques.
Images courtesy of TheHort