Before a farm visit, I usually worry about the weather, avoiding snakes, and looking for ticks afterward. But there’s a lot more to consider when the farm is located at the Allendale Correctional Institution, an all-male facility housing roughly 1,300 prisoners serving sentences from six months to life. On the two-hour drive from Charleston to Fairfax, acres of cotton, corn, and tobacco flew past as I tried to focus on my questions for the warden and inmates instead of all the ways the trip could go wrong. Upon arriving, the City Paper‘s photographer and I walked through a metal detector, received a full-body pat down, and were escorted through several mechanized metal gates until we found the warden.

Despite school field trips to correctional facilities and speaking at length with the warden on what to expect, nothing really prepared me for entering a locked facility with more than 1,000 convicted criminals. The display case of confiscated handmade weapons, from shivs to guns, combined with a casual quip about avoiding the men in pink jumpsuits, flagged as in-prison sex offenders, dispelled any notion that Allendale prison was lacking dangerous men, despite its reputation for inspiring good behavior.

Yet as soon as we entered the prison yard, I was disarmed by the beauty of well-manicured lawns and flowerbeds planted with everything from sunflowers and roses to basil and amaranth. Warden John Pate described his programs and the farm logistics prior to my visit, but a phone conversation could not convey the breadth of work being done. Summer is unforgiving on farms in the South, especially this year with nonstop rain and out-of-control pests, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at the luscious beds of vegetables and flowers surrounded by a bright green lawn. Cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, eggplant, okra, and peppers overflowed in clean rows with colorful flowers and herbs mixed throughout the garden. Inside the greenhouse, a variety of professional quality ornamental plants and seedlings lined the meticulously organized tables and floor. Walking past cuttings being rooted in vermiculite, Pate explained that George (the warden requested we not use inmates’ last names) drove the launch of the farm. Last year, George approached the warden about being able to plant a garden in one of the lawns not being utilized. At that point, the warden had been in his position for two years and was already making headway with a number of volunteer- and inmate-run programs and knew that it was worth a try.

George, born and raised on a vegetable farm in South Carolina, came to the facility with formal training in horticulture from the University of Florida and had the skills to get a garden started.

“I wanted to put something on the plate,” he told me.

No stranger to life in prison, George had already spent 26 years serving a life sentence and knew that he needed somewhere to direct his energy and mind other than simply surviving. With the support of the warden, the staff horticulturalist, and outside volunteers, George built a team of fellow inmates to help dig up the fields, build the beds, layout the irrigation, plant the seeds, weed rows, and harvest the produce. Funds to start the program were generated by recycling cans for money as well as growing plants to sell to volunteers and staff. What could not be purchased was often donated, thanks in part to Carter, an inmate on the garden team who discovered that what he lacked in plant knowledge, he made up for in fundraising skills. Carter is one of many who had no previous gardening experience and received hands-on training alongside George. Carter is humble about how much he has learned and accomplished, but he’s proud of what he does. “Soil and seed can produce so much for your family and your neighbors,” he said.

These two men are part of a group of inmates that has grown to include more than 100 participants who help the staff horticulturalist, if only for an hour at a time. Over the last year, they’ve expanded the garden into a working farm complete with a full production greenhouse, an acre of organic vegetables and flowers, a compost area, a tool rental building, and a collection of brightly colored beehives.

As with most of the programs developed at Allendale, an outside volunteer support network provides training and guidance. On the farm, Vaughan Spearman, a local organic farmer, has trained all the workers. A practicing permaculturalist, he’s passionate about gardening techniques that work with existing site conditions, harnessing natural systems, utilizing organic methods, and integrating perennial plants. Spearman works with the warden, advising on potential projects as well as teaching classes on organic gardening and permaculture. Both George and Carter have taken Vaughan’s courses and will be working with him to create a demonstration food forest and potentially a hydroponic growing pod for lettuce at the site this fall. Carter notes that since the garden program, it is not uncommon to hear hardened criminals asking about the types of flowers in the yard or discussing the latest issue of Mother Earth News and Organic Gardening.

When talking to these two inmates about seed saving and gardening magazines, it’s easy to forget that everything they accomplish is done within the context of a prison system. Putting aside traditional farming challenges, these farmers must also follow strict protocol while navigating fundraising, getting permission to use farm tools, acquiring materials, and even answering basic farming questions.

Both George and Carter have been in prison for nearly three decades and have seen the prison system change for better or worse. Carter says that before Allendale he rarely saw any positive interaction between inmates. Instead, there was violence and lots of alcohol and drug abuse. Most prisons are simply holding facilities where inmates spend their days moving from their cells to the yard to the mess hall and back again. Inmates worry about making alliances, watching their backs, working the system, and staying alive. They talked casually about being threatened, stabbed, and cut at previous facilities.

After 24 years of working with inmates in this type of environment, Pate grew weary of seeing the same prisoners return year after year, often coming back worse than before. He knew that without programs to empower prisoners to learn, grow, and improve, the cycle would continue. Similar to most government facilities, correctional institutions are operating on shoestring budgets and must choose between being creative or doing without.

After becoming warden in 2010, Pate visited Perry, a correctional facility in Pelzer, S.C., to learn about their Character Housing Unit and Jumpstart initiatives. Both were developed by inmates to create a positive social environment, develop individual character, and encourage peer-to-peer accountability.

In practice, a Character Housing Unit (CHU) is a facility where an inmate can apply to live on a wing with other inmates interested in self improvement. Participants must meet behavioral criteria, sign a social contract, and participate in character-building classes. The rules of their social contract range from respecting personal space to private property and are enforced peacefully by peers. The CHU concept was established in Allendale in 2011 with 128 residents in one wing of a dorm. The program has grown to include over 450 inmates in the program and now includes the 40-week Jumpstart program for individuals within two years of their release date preparing them to re-enter society.

During our tour, we entered a CHU where inmates greeted our group while quietly going about their day. Throughout the entryway and halls, hand-painted quotes about character, compassion, and positivity decorate the walls. As we entered, an excited din rose in the room but within seconds, hands started going up, and the volume returned to normal. According to Pate, this is an example of the peer-to-peer behavior management, which creates an environment safe for prisoners to live and volunteers to visit.

For George and Carter, living in the CHU and participating in character-building courses have created the foundation for changing their life in prison, and the garden has given them purpose and renewed hope. “I can plug into something bigger than me,” George told me. “It’s changed my state of being.” Before the garden, George was being written up at least once a day, but it’s been more than two years without an incident.

The garden contributes more than 2,000 pounds of fresh organic produce into the cafeteria. “The men working on this farm don’t get recognition,” says George. “They learn to be a team player and that working there brings a reward. To plant a seed and take care of it until it pays off. Just like people. You cultivate a relationship like with plants and the fruit of that work is friendship.”

For Carter, being in the CHU, participating in the Jumpstart classes, and working on the farm have given him a purpose. “Even though it’s prison, it has been a blessing,” he says. “I don’t take it for granted. Because of the program … I am not coming back.”

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