Doing ‘Garden Time’ Helps Formerly Incarcerated People Rebuild Their Lives
March 28, 2023
PROVIDENCE — Surrounded by a vegetable and herb garden he helped cultivate, Anderson sat on a wooden picnic table on a warm fall morning and discussed what he’s learned about gardening.
“How do you learn about a plant? Just by rubbing the leaves … and you smell it,” he said.
To demonstrate, Anderson, who stands 6 foot 4, bent over the low wooden wall of one of the garden beds and tugged off a few small leaves, which revealed themselves to be basil and rosemary after the smell test.
Anderson, a 57-year-old military veteran and former oil-platform builder, has become a gardener within the past 10 years or so, and is always happy to talk about it.
“In some neighborhoods, there’s roses; in some neighborhoods” — most often ones that are home to Black Americans like himself — “there’s only asphalt,” he said.
Anderson, two years out of prison, was at the Plainfield Street garden that day finishing up his first week in the Green Jobs Reentry Training program run by Garden Time, a Providence-based nonprofit.
The reentry program is an offshoot of a gardening program run by Garden Time at the Rhode Island Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) since 2011, according to Kate Lacouture, founder and executive director. In addition to teaching incarcerated people about gardening, the ACI program also helps participants on an individual level with reentry needs when their sentences end.
Lacouture called the ACI training a “pre-employment program,” because Garden Time teaches gardening, horticulture, and other green industries and brings in employers from those fields to teach and get to know program participants. It was in the ACI that Anderson met Lacouture, whom he calls “Mother Duck” and credits with a lot of the turnaround in his attitude — though she won’t take any responsibility for it.
When the pandemic hit, Garden Time started expanding its work outside the prison. Lacouture said the organization started a garden at Open Doors, a nonprofit focused on reentry in the city’s Silver Lake neighborhood. Working in that garden regularly planted the idea of a formal reentry and job training program for individuals who were out of prison and trying to integrate into the community, Lacouture said.
Garden Time ran a shorter reentry training pilot program in fall 2021, and thanks to its success, it was funded by the state Department of Labor and Training as a Real Jobs Rhode Island program. This allowed Garden Time to expand the program from six to eight weeks, offer larger weekly stipends to participants ($400 a week), and provide lunch Monday through Thursday.
For participants of the program who have just left prison, “it’s really nice to have a nice landing spot,” Lacouture said.
The program also provides students with Chromebook laptops, work boots, and other tools that participants might need on a job. They attend classes in a Manton Avenue classroom on topics such as arboriculture and nutrition, or receive hands-on training at various locations Monday through Friday. Friday mornings are spent at the Open Doors garden.
During the last week of the program, the students participate in an internship, for which Garden Time pays.
The internship “becomes like an extended job interview, like a chance for the person to prove themselves, a chance for the employer to be comfortable with it,” Lacouture said. “Because a lot of times, you know, you ask an employer if they would hire formerly incarcerated people, and they don’t really know what that means. It sounds scary. They don’t know what that entails.”
By the end of the program, those who graduate become official Providence tree keepers, receive an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) certification for completing a 40-hour training, and hopefully find full-time positions in a green industry job, Lacouture said.
Participants must attend most of the classes to complete the program, but on the first Friday of the 2022 session, one of Lacouture’s star students was missing.
Acing new path forward
Attending classes can be difficult for anyone who has recently been released from prison or has a police record. Suspended or revoked licenses, little funds for car insurance or a car itself, and sporadic and mandatory parole meetings and other legal hearings can all complicate attendance.
But Ace, 43, who, like Anderson, met Lacouture inside the ACI, missed the first Friday class because of a cat.
Ace had been working for Groundwork Rhode Island earlier that week, when he saw a stray cat and couldn’t help picking it up, Lacouture said, despite his allergy to cats. The contact caused Ace’s asthma to flare up, keeping him from Friday’s class.
Nothing about the story seemed out of the ordinary to Lacouture, who has known Ace for years and helped him get the work with Groundwork after he completed the Garden Time program in prison.
Since Ace was released from the ACI, before COVID, he has accumulated cats, dogs, and tons of pepper plants, gotten married, and started his own landscaping business.
He knows some of the other participants in the reentry program, living in temporary housing and lacking satisfying work, struggling to maintain their connections in the world outside prison walls, looked up to him.
Even though his success might look easy and the way he speaks and presents himself might seem completely controlled, his journey has been long, he said.
He speaks mostly light-heartedly about the past and his hijinks while also admitting to deep pain and trauma.
“I have ADHD [attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder], and I’m always getting in trouble,” Ace said.
He can talk about growing up in Liberia and sneaking into a neighbor’s garden to snatch fruit in the same easy tone as he discusses the trials of his addiction. And he readily speaks about the therapist he sees regularly to help him with his addiction, as well as attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
To overcome some of his challenges, Ace said he has had to make adjustments. The green jobs program starts at 9 a.m., but Ace regularly gets there hours early. If he picks his wife up from work, often at 2, 3, or 4 o’clock in the morning, sometimes he chooses to stay up, so he knows he’ll be ready for the class, he said.
Some of the other guys have noticed and been dumbfounded at the choice, but he said he knows if he didn’t stay up or wake up so early, he won’t make it.
Hockey pucks and peppers
On an unusually cold Friday morning, John Kenny, owner of Big Train Farm in Cranston, visited Open Doors to talk to the reentry program participants about green farming practices and how they could start their own farms.
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture offers several different loan programs and has targeted incentives for women and people of color.
“I’m not going to kid you,” Kenny said, going on to explain that even with help, obtaining a loan and starting a farm isn’t easy.
Still, Anderson raised his hand to ask how he might be able to get a job on Kenny’s farm. And when Kenny explained that a letter of loan rejection from a bank might be necessary to show eligibility for some FSA programs, Ace said, “That’s easy.”
When the talk was over, both Anderson and Ace were standing next to Kenny. Ace showed Kenny pictures of his peppers, and Anderson wrote down Kenny’s contact info.
Ace and Anderson are frequently the most talkative during the Friday sessions, when they usually have a guest speaker, debrief, and work in the Open Doors garden. Ace asks a lot of questions, and Anderson seems to have every answer.
The pair has known each other for years and met in the ACI. Anderson had set up a little business selling Oreo “hockey puck” cakes he made in his cell with items from the commissary, and Ace developed an affinity for them.
Though they are friends — Ace said they talk almost every night — they are opposites in many ways. Ace is laid-back and easygoing. Anderson is particular and proper, speaking the Queen’s English with a subtle Southern accent and often correcting other people’s grammar, because his father instilled in him that it was important how one speaks.
Ace has tried to let a lot go. He knows he’s made mistakes, and he tries to make up for them. He knows his life has been unfair, but he tries not to think about it. On the other hand, injustice boils under Anderson’s skin when he talks about the environmental hazards Black and brown Americans face and their connection to the cyclical criminal justice he and others have experienced.
Incarceration by the numbers
Two million people are currently incarcerated in the United States.
Out of the 11 participants that arrived at the first day of the reentry program, most were men of color. Two people were white. There was only one woman in the class.
The group reflects the larger pool of Americans who are or have been incarcerated.
To get into the program, all the participants had to apply. To qualify, applicants needed to have been incarcerated or impacted by the justice system — through charges or arrests.
For the program, Garden Time looks for applicants who are “highly motivated to learn green industry skills” and “excited to work outdoors as a part of a team,” according to Lacouture.
Some, like Ace and Anderson, had previously worked with the Garden Time program, while others had heard of the program for the first time after their sentences were completed.
Like many of the people who have been incarcerated around the country, several of the participants in Garden Time’s green jobs program were in prison for long periods or repeatedly throughout their lives.
A 2021 study of people incarcerated in Rhode Island showed that by the 3-year post-release mark, 47% had been sentenced again to prison. Many of them had been charged again within the first six months of their release date.
Education programs inside a prison, like Garden Time, can do a lot to prevent this. “Prisoners who participate in education programs have a 43% lower chance of being reincarcerated than those who do not, and for every dollar spent on prison education, the government saves four to five dollars on the costs of reincarceration,” according to the Harvard Political Review.
Even if someone who has been incarcerated isn’t rearrested, finding employment can be difficult. An analysis of people released from prison in 2010 showed that 62% of formerly incarcerated people were unemployed when overall unemployment in the United States was at a little more than 9% that year. Those unemployment numbers grew over the following years.
For people trying to piece together their lives after so much time away from society, finding a job can mean financial security and increased confidence.
Getting out to make a difference
Lacouture said when people in the Garden Time program are released from prison, they are often looking to get their lives together and find employment, but they also want to try to do something that gives back to the community.
That’s part of the reason the jobs program is focusing on plant-based skills, Lacouture said, and specifically on trees.
“Planting trees in neighborhoods that need more trees, like for example, this one … it’s tangible that you’re improving the community,” she said.
“We’re learning a lot about climate change and the benefits of trees. We’re learning about the concept of tree equity,” she added, that like income and health, not all neighborhoods are created equally.
For example, a part of Providence’s wealthy, mostly white East Side has 40% tree canopy cover and receive perfect tree equity scores from American Forests, a nonprofit that maps tree cover in relational to other demographic information. But an area in South Providence that is majority persons of color only has 13% tree canopy cover and gets a failing score of 50.
Along with job training in fields like agriculture, arboriculture, and landscaping, there is a lot of focus on how the environment impacts society and the participants individually.
Part of what kept Anderson in the Garden Time program inside ACI were those ideas of community and self-improvement.
Anderson had originally decided to sign up for the Garden Time program in the hopes that he could sneak a few things from the garden to cook back in his cell.
Anderson, who grew up in Louisiana before moving north to work on oil platforms, kept to the Southern home cooking traditions he learned from his family, even when he didn’t have access to all the necessary provisions in prison. (In addition to being able to rattle off facts about how each plant in Open Doors’ garden grows best, he also knows the best recipes for cooking them.)
Quickly, Anderson realized that Garden Time was more than a way to save his commissary money, and Lacouture would become a life-changing connection.
One day during the program, Lacouture asked Anderson if he actually knew where his food was coming from and what was in it. He started to think about the “tall boys, crack pipes, blunt wraps, Doritos,” that were in the convenience stores in neighborhoods where people that looked like him lived.
Lacouture asked Anderson to question what he knew and “challenged me to be an asset,” he said.
“I can’t change the world. But I can change the narrative in my community,” Anderson said.
Past the half-way mark for the program, at the end of October 2022, even though Anderson had been one of the first participants to figure out his internship and stood apart as a leader in the group, he couldn’t say that he thought he was doing well.
When presented with all his accomplishments, he shrugged them off and talked about what his life had been like before prison when he was in the military and worked to build huge oil rigs. He lived more freely then, he said.
Now, he had job prospects, but nothing guaranteed. He lived in a home with several other men, some of whom he was trying to mentor, but that could be taxing. He didn’t like to leave the house because he said he feared being arrested again.
Lacouture cautioned against drawing an overly sunny perspective about the program. Some participants stop coming, she said, while others could relapse in their addiction or get caught on another charge.
She had seen it happen before.
Elvis, 41, often showed up to the program in work boots and a sweatshirt, holding a Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Elvis is a local; he grew up on the city’s South Side and has a Rhode Island accent to go with his affinity for iced coffee, even when it’s cold outside.
He is usually smiling and joking around, quick to back down if a quip has been misinterpreted or apologize if he’s interrupted someone.
Elvis has been in and out of prison, often related to his past drug use.
Last year, Elvis made it a few weeks into the pilot before he fell back into an old habit. He went downtown, met a girl, took two pills, and woke up in the hospital with stab wounds to his head and back, he said. There is a faint scar on the left side of his face usually hidden by a hat.
He doesn’t remember what happened or who did it, not that he would press charges if he did.
It’s been a long recovery, he said. This time he wanted to make the most of his second chance and finish out the program strong.
Last year, Elvis didn’t get the chance to experience one of the most anticipated classes in the program — a demonstration in tree climbing and the opportunity to suit up and be hoisted among the limbs.
When the time finally came, at the end of October, Elvis nervously asked one of the professional tree climbers from Largess Forestry, “Do you check the line every night?”
The group crowded under the large branches of an old oak at Neutaconkanut Park, some with skepticism and/or nervousness, like Elvis, while others, including Ace, seemed eager to try to get to the top.
Ace and Anderson buckled into harnesses first, and although Anderson is quite a bit taller than Ace, he raced up the side of the tree, twice as fast.
Everyone climbed the tree, even Elvis.
Although part of the day was fun, much of it was instructional, covering safety, tree health, and jobs. Anderson and another participant ended up being placed at Largess for their internships, which took place during the first week of November.
Almost all of the 11 participants were placed with a green industry internship. Elvis interned at the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council.
Ace did something a little different. He shadowed the owner of a landscaping company, Roby Newton of Wild Medicine Gardens, to help him with his own landscaping business that he began before the program started.
They talked through the ins and outs of small-business practices, from liability insurance to pricing to making his company greener — he decided to switch to all electric tools and “manpower,” Ace said.
He said Newton had offered to refer any work her business couldn’t do his way. He would still need to figure out how to deal with snow removal jobs in the offseason, but he said he’d likely use the “manpower” he mentioned.
Not only had Ace secured some mentorship, by the final week, he had found out that he would be staying on, in a way, during the next session in the spring.
Garden Time had asked him to help instruct the reentry program.
Garden Time’s up
When graduation day finally came on the first Friday of November, 10 of the 11 people who had shown up the first day were ready to receive their diplomas — all of them passed, but one person decided not to come on the last day.
Everyone had been certified by OSHA and as Providence tree keepers, and seven of them had received job offers from their internships. Many of them had also learned to love salads, fried cauliflower, and the other healthy food Lacouture introduced them to.
The sun shone on the garden at Open Doors, and family and friends pooled onto the grass with balloons and cameras and small children.
Elvis brought a friend along whom he had met in prison and whom he hoped might be able to join the program next year. Elvis hadn’t been hired — his job at the Woonasquatucket River Watershed Council had been seasonal — but he was hoping to get a position there the following year.
Ace arrived with his family, including a little one who he carried around on his shoulders for much of the event.
And Anderson, who had been hired after his internship by Largess Forestry, looked a little nervous.
After some time milling around and snacking, Lacouture corralled the students onto the Open Doors porch entrance that had become their stage to thank the families, partners, and participants.
Before the diplomas were handed out, Elvis stepped up to make a speech. He took the mic from Lacouture and paused, leaning over the railing of the porch, head down, before he was able to speak.
“I’ve been through a lot. I am a survivor. You notice every warrior has scars, and I have a lot of them inside and out,” he said. “But I’m real. I’m true. I’m blessed to be here.”
To the crowd, Elvis explained why he hadn’t finished the program the year before and said that for the first time in his life, the program helped him feel like he wasn’t a thief or a liar but a person who deserved compassion and love.
“This program has changed my perspective on where I can go, what I can do, and how I can get there, and I’m grateful for that,” he said.
The program was over, officially, but the camaraderie wasn’t. The participants still had their jobs to look forward to, a bowling outing planned, someone’s birthday coming up — and return visits to the garden.
Update: This story was reported and written over a number of months at the end of 2022 and early 2023. Since that time, Anderson, who was hired by Largess Forestry, was arrested and is facing new charges. Ace is working for the Garden Time program and studying for the state arborist exam. Garden Time received a $100,000 grant from American Forest to allow the program to expand and offer more training in tree care; expanded into an office/training space with Groundwork Rhode Island; and has received 20 applicants so far for the spring program.
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