Northward Prison’s job-based initiative programmes that teach woodworking, leather working and construction have been well documented, but there is another unique programme in place that teaches inmates how to grow successful gardens.
More than 30 inmates have participated in the prison’s agriculture programme to date, and the mandate is to help prepare inmates for reentry into society in a positive manner by providing them with the necessary training and marketable skills.
The result is the cultivation of a wide variety of fresh produce that is sold to the public, as well as consumed by prisoners. The produce includes callaloo, tomatoes, bananas, plantains, scallions, cucumbers, carrots, sweet peppers and hot peppers, as well as herbs like thyme and parsley.
The produce is grown year-round right on the prison grounds on three separate plots: one for multi-crops, another strictly for Scotch bonnet hot peppers and one that contains a greenhouse.
Prison officer Austin Williams is the vocational instructor, as well as a qualified farmer. His training involves a combination of literature, videos and practical know-how of gardening and farming techniques.
The Cayman Islands Department of Agriculture provides additional technical support when needed, and the prison has also partnered with the National Workforce Development Agency to help assess the inmates for work readiness. Every other Wednesday at the Camana Bay Farmers & Artisans Market, Williams — usually accompanied by at least one inmate — sells some of the produce grown at the prison’s farm. Artwork produced by the prisoners is also sold at the stall.
The produce is of such high quality that it’s even sold in bulk to various retailers on island. During Scotch bonnet season, for example, the prison provides over 600 pounds per month to Progressive Distributors Ltd. Staff members have observed that gardening has helped inmates improve social skills, raise self-esteem and reduce anxiety, stress and aggression.
Deputy Director of Rehabilitation Aduke Joseph-Caesar says that when given the opportunity to work outdoors, inmates tend to be healthier and less aggressive. She also says that working on the farms provides at least a small degree of reduction in recidivism.
“Rehabilitation of offenders must occur in order for former inmates to re-enter society and become contributing members of it,” she says, adding that there are many studies that indicate gardening is an effective therapy for managing mental illness like depression and post-traumatic disorder, with additional benefits of providing healthy food, increasing physical activity and helping to develop skills and work ethic.
Many of the prison cells even contain grow boxes of produce, which the inmates create for their own consumption.
“Cultivating the produce is a form of therapy, but we also want participants of the programme to be self-sustaining,” she says. “The goal is to keep inmates positively occupied by building grow boxes to enhance their self-esteem and nurturing skills, and to create positive growth.”
She also notes that gardening takes patience, diligence and the ability to overcome obstacles. “Once success is attained, a great sense of accomplishment is felt,” she says. “The programme seems to discourage inmates from future criminal activity by actually giving them hope and actionable skills to use on the outside.”
Joseph-Caesar says that farming or gardening therapy also provides an excellent place to develop personal goals, not necessarily for crop-yield, but for work and effort. She notes that many inmates have been incarcerated because they got into trouble due to having too much free time, which led to associating with the wrong peers.
“Prisoners making effective goals in the programme will learn to make effective goals in other areas of their lives,” she says. “They will also learn to modify goals and to continue to work even when progress is slow. We are seeing many in the programme now getting hooked on farming initiatives.”
She cites one former inmate who now has a farm on his property and is able to provide for his wife and five children. He also gives away produce to his neighbours and is spending more time with his family.
“He was filled with a sense of pride of his accomplishments when we last spoke,” says Joseph-Caesar. Perhaps the biggest outcome achieved for those participating in the agriculture programme is the sense of hope that is achieved since they must work hard even when they don’t see the results of their labours.
“Gardening provides people with a change from the norm of instant gratification so prevalent in the world today, to learning how to develop realistic expectations, patience and hope for the future,” she says. “Ultimately, we believe people can change.”