Rikers Greenhouse Project director James Jiler reads from his just-published book Doing Times in the Garden.
Listening in a meeting room on the island is an audience of Correction officials and officers, Horticultural Society
leaders and staff, and others involved with and supportive of the Rikers Island garden and farm projects.
The Farm & Horticultural projects [on Rikers Island] are vocational programs that provide inmates with opportunities to learn practical employment skills
and afford instruction in|
All vegetables produced by the Farm Project are organically grown and State inspected before being distributed to the Nutritional Services Division and community food pantries, such as City Harvest.
The Horticultural Society of New York affords inmates participating in the Horticultural Project with training in job skills such as
Discharge planning. transitional services, internships and job placement are also integral components of the project.
Serenity, and, yes, even hope are hardly the words one associates with a jail or prison. Yet there is a small two-acre patch of New York City’s famous jail on Rikers Island for which those words are appropriate. This book is written to describe how one program can help change the term correctional facility from a euphemism to a reality. . . .
This book describes the GreenHouse project of the Horticultural Society of New York (HSNY), a program for those incarcerated, which prepares them to change their lives so that after release they will not return to the behavior that led to incarceration.
. . . it remains a highly sophisticated program that combines classroom and hands-on gardening with life lessons about teamwork, responsibility and nurturing (plants and each other) and, because of that, a program that remarkably reduces recidivism. . . .
We are grateful for the support we receive from the New York City Department of Correction, the greenhouse and the land around it, the superbly trained, highly motivated, and carefully selected corrections officers who both transport the inmates to and from the project every day and remain present during the classes and work programs.
Beyond that, many generous foundations and individuals support the program salaries and classroom materials, and many big-hearted nurseries on Long Island and in Westchester County contribute extraordinary plant materials. . . .
All jurisdictions, whether county or city, have public libraries, plant nurseries, garden clubs or horticultural organizations and, also a jail that can replicate the kind of magical program we have in New York.
Surely, too, they can understand that serenity and hope need not be incompatible with jail.
Anthony R. Smith
Over 100,000 on any given year come to Rikers Island to await the disposition of their criminal case or to serve jail sentences of less than one year.
One can’t help but think—as this procession of the poorest New Yorkers comes in and out—that we can do something better for our most economically distressed communities to keep young people from landing in jail. . . .
On the other hand, Rikers Island is also populated with corrections officers and staff who serve selflessly and heroically to improve the lives of those who find themselves in jail.
It is populated with inmates who, despite overwhelming odds turn their lives around through the force of either sheer will or, more usually, with the benefit of a program or mentor who can tap into these mostly young people’s intelligence and excitement at rediscovering education or finding a craft they love.
During my tenure as Commissioner I would occasionally teach in the culinary program on Rikers, and the interest and excitement of the students who were trying to master a skill was always incredibly moving. These, in the end, are the most powerful memories for me -- inmates and staff engaged in some life affirming activity, going well beyond the usual “care, custody and control” mission of jails and prisons.
Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in the horticulture program for men and women at Rikers Island. Though I can’t quite remember my precise reaction to the call from Tony Smith, President of the Horticultural Society of New York, in 1996 to suggest we begin such a program on Rikers, I imagine it was likely along the lines of “Are you insane?”
Initially, I couldn’t quite envision the connection between inner-city young adults, horticulture and landscaping. Additionally, the logistics of moving people in and out of jails and back and forth to the greenhouse and the gardens seemed challenging, to say the least.
The more Tony and I talked, however, the more I could see this actually taking shape and working. Inmates would have a chance to be outside and working at something they would enjoy instead of staying indoors and doing either nothing or rote jobs like polishing floors. And, I myself had experienced. as a home-grown New York City resident who, before getting a small backyard garden in my 30s had never planted a thing, that gardening, planting, harvesting and even composting were really enjoyable activities that transcended all backgrounds and demographic characteristics.
Tony was right. It was a great idea. The inmates who participated in the program had wonderful experiences. The staff that ran the program was incredibly dedicated. Great mentors and teachers developed programs outside of Rikers so that landscaping and horticultural skills could be further honed.
Many former inmates supported themselves with the skills they learned from these programs and went on to work in the field. It was always wonderful to see, as I traveled around Rikers Island, the students in the program busily planting, seeding and landscaping despite being in the midst of the world’s largest penal colony.
Most of these program participants had probably never even thought about growing flowers, much less actually doing the sometimes delicate, sometimes arduous task of weeding, pruning and feeding.
Yet, there they were—eager and anxious to get outside, to take care of their garden and participate in the miracle of watching beautiful things grow.
With relatively small effort and a dedicated staff of people like James Jiler who give tirelessly of themselves, many former inmates have discovered the pleasures of creating and nurturing beautiful things and have simultaneously learned practical skills. Perhaps more importantly, many have found that it wasn’t just the flowers and plants that they were so carefully helping to stay healthy and grow. It was, of course, themselves.
Rikers Island is the largest jail complex in the United States—a 415-acre island in Flushing Bay, ringed by razor wire and encompassing ten different jails.
Since 1996, The Horticultural Society of New York has developed and administered a jail-to-street horticulture program for men and women inmates at Rikers Island, specifically to break this cycle. At our two-acre facility, complete with a greenhouse and attached classroom, inmates learn about plant science, ecology, horticulture skills, gardening construction and design.
Apart from our instructional gardens, we build bird and bat houses and bird feeders and grow plants for gardens in the schools and parks of different neighborhoods, using our Rikers GreenHouse as a resource that helps restore the connection between people and nature in the City’s urban communities.
Once released, students have the opportunity to work with us as paid interns, honing their skills as horticulturists as they build, plant and maintain gardens in New York City.
Often I am approached by staff at jails and correctional facilities in states and counties across the country and Canada and asked how one establishes an effective prog1am for at-risk or incarcerated men and women. How do you engage people in developing job skills when they have no interest in learning?
.... The answers to these questions are many and reflect the complex nature of different city and state facilities found throughout the county as well as the social dynamics of the people incarcerated there. At Hikers Island, for example, there are ten jails housing ten different populations of offenders.
Unlike state programs, which can have inmates for extended periods of over a year, Rikers is for short-timers; many of our students are with us for less than six months, creating a constant turnover of new and old students. There is no one formula for a successful program. . . . . Doing Time in the Gardenwas written to inspire and assist practitioners in developing their own programs by sharing the collective experience and insights from our work on Rikers . . . .
Rikers family farm & Municipal Farm
Land Tilling & Landfilling
Eggery, piggery & tree nursery
Trees go but vegs & flowers linger.
To: NYCHS home page.
To NYC DOC history menu page.