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Prison Gardens Help Inmates Grow Their Own Food — And Skills

Last week, we reported on the correctional industry's enduring practice of punishing certain inmates with a bland, lumpish food known as "the loaf."

Fortunately, there are also more encouraging stories to tell about prison food.

It turns out there's a pretty vibrant movement of prison vegetable gardens across the country that provide inmates with satisfying work, marketable skills and fresh food to eat. From Connecticut to Minnesota to California, correctional authorities are finding all kinds of reasons to encourage inmates to produce their own food inside the walls.

Recently, we got a rare glimpse behind those walls — of those gardens — at the San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco, thanks to this video from Planting Justice. The Bay Area group works with less-advantaged communities on food by building gardens and creating jobs in urban food production.

In the video, filmed in December, we see inmates at San Quentin building five raised beds for vegetables in the prison yard of the medium security unit. The inmate Charles' excitement about the prospect of a homegrown tomato is pretty palpable. It's the first vegetable garden inside a California state prison.

Planting Justice helped oversee the garden project in partnership with Insight Garden Program, which has been helping inmates at San Quentin rehabilitate and get training in flower gardening since 2003.

Those gardening skills are being put to use once the men leave San Quentin as well. In the past three years, Planting Justice has hired 10 former inmates to work on landscaping jobs, according to the group's website. They get an entry-level wage of $17.50 per hour.

According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, more than four in 10 offenders return to prison within three yeas. By contrast, Planting Justice says the recidivism rate for the men who go through the garden program is 10 percent. Programs in other states have had similar successes — apparently, gardening behind bars seems to help people steer clear of crime once they get out.

In 2012, Nourishing the Planet, a blog of the Worldwatch Institute, put together this list of five urban garden prison projects. It notes that not only do the garden programs help with rehabilitation, they also often save states and local government thousands of dollars.

And one prison garden in Missouri was reportedly so bountiful, it had extra produce — 163 tons' worth — to donate to food pantries, shelters, churches, nursing homes and schools in 2013.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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