Prisons, Then Parks: A Therapeutic Journey

By Dylan Walsh
New Haven, CT (August 2, 2011)- This spring, James Sweat planted saplings on a grassy shoulder of Jewell Street in New Haven- English oak, scarlet oak, northern red oak and pink spire crabapple. Wearing a white T-shirt, black jeans and thin wire glasses, he paused to smoke a cigarette and sip a beer. “If you saw me on the street, you know, you wouldn’t think I’m a criminal,” he said.


With four other former prison inmates, Mr. Sweat, 23, was working for the Urban Resources Initiative, a New Haven nonprofit affiliated with Yale University that marries the goal of reintegrating prisoners into society with urban forestry through its GreenSkills program. The crew of five men planted about a dozen trees a day in New Haven, nudging the city closer to its goal of planting 10,000 new trees by 2014.
To some, the sight of toughened and tattooed men from prison pruning trees, tipping water cans and gently tamping soil may seem a bit incongruous. But Urban Resources Initiative and a growing group of organizations across the country are testing the premise that such efforts can restore urban ecosystems and give inmates a sense of stability and purpose.
The programs are proving all the more pragmatic, advocates say, as cities and states contend with steep budget deficits and prison systems struggle with populations that are far beyond capacity. Last year the national prison population shrank for the first time in 39 years as officials, seeking in some cases to reduce overcrowding, released more than 600,000 inmates.
With the unemployment rate above 9 percent, these former inmates are at a greater disadvantage than most in seeking work. “The question is, what are we going to do with all of these people?” said Colleen Murphy-Dunning, the director of Urban Resources Initiative. “What are they going to do with themselves?”
Ex-convicts have an average unemployment rate of 50 percent. James Jiler, former director of a two-acre garden and farm at the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City, says that this remains a central challenge for parolees. “Idle hands are the devil’s playground,” he said. “If these men and women don’t have steady work, they may find ways to occupy themselves that are not so productive.”
Recidivism rates top 60 percent in some states. Yet studies of employed ex-convicts have found that their recidivism rate is less than half that of all released prisoners.
Advocates like Ms. Murphy-Dunning and Mr. Jiler say that the work does far more than simply occupy a worker’s time and pay a salary, however. “There is something integral about our connection with nature,” Mr. Jiler said. Gardening, he said, “offers the peace and tranquility necessary for these folks to get beyond other issues in their lives.”
Horticultural therapy is quite literally ancient history: centuries ago, Chinese Taoists lauded the benefits of gardens and greenhouses. In the 1699 edition of “The English Gardener,” the writer Leonard Meager declared that “there is no better way to preserve your health” than spend time in a garden.
In 1984 the Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia to describe the innate human “tendency to focus on life and lifelike processes” and to bond with the natural world. “Our existence depends on this propensity,” Dr. Wilson wrote. “Our spirit is woven from it, hope rises on its currents.”
After years of working in factories, James Cunningham served five years in prison. At age 34, he returned to Newark and began a six-month internship with the New Jersey Tree Foundation, where he is now employed full-time. He cares for thousands of trees, helps maintain a nursery and leads two planting crews of parolees in the spring and autumn. “Now I love getting up and going to work,” he said. “This job gives me an overall respect for life.”
On days off, Mr. Cunningham occasionally drives through town with his daughter as if through an art gallery, pointing to and naming the trees that he has planted. “I’m proud of that,” he said.
In an era of shrinking budgets, such programs can also prove less costly for cities and states than hiring private contractors to plant and maintain trees. It’s “a lot less costly than the private sector,” Ms. Murphy-Dunning said of groups like hers.
Ben Falk, founder and director of Whole Systems Design, a sustainable landscaping company in Vermont’s Mad River Valley, says that such programs are ultimately about “healing the land and the people simultaneously.” He is working with the Southeast State Correctional Facility in Windsor, Vt., to redevelop 450 acres of state-owned land as a working farm tended by inmates.
“In our prisons we’re not rehabilitating prisoners effectively; on our land we’re not growing what we need to live anymore,” Mr. Falk said. “We need to move toward a solution that works synergistically with these problems.”
Related Resources:
New York Times- Prisons, Then Parks: A Therapeutic Journey
Urban Resources Initiative
New Jersey Tree Foundation
Green Jobs- Part III: From Incarceration or Probation to Employment