By Jacklin Bolduan
Jason Garlynd heads out to the greenhouse from his office at the Oakhill Correctional Institution, a minimum security prison just outside of Madison in Oregon, WI. It’s the middle of the growing season for Garlynd and the men who are a part of the Horticulture Training Program, one Garlynd has been building for the last two decades. He has several degrees, including a Master of Soil Science from The University of Wisconsin- Madison. His practical strengths, however, are matched in his ability to foster healing and restorative connections amongst incarcerated men and Madison communities.
The horticulture program is one of several vocational training programs that are required for some of the men, depending on their past work experience upon intake. It is accredited through Madison College and counts for partial credit towards other horticulture training programs at technical schools outside of the institution. However, currently, about 65% of all Wisconsin Technical College System horticulture technical training programs in the state exist inside the Department of Corrections. The program consists of two class sessions per four-month trimester. Students cover fundamentals of horticulture, interiorscaping, turf management, landscape design and maintenance, as well as applied mathematics. Each course consists of sixteen students and supported by 6 inmate workers. Students apply skills learned in the classroom to hands-on projects in the facility’s garden plot and greenhouse. Inmate staff maintain the grounds of the institution and continue to grow their landscaping skills and knowledge. In addition, staff manage the greenhouse and surrounding landscape beds which house plants for general landscaping needs as well as plants for the Oakhill Kid’s Garden Network.
Not long after he began directing the training program, Garlynd began to grow Oakhill’s horticulture program into a thriving community network that has gained widespread recognition and support from the community. The Oakhill Kid’s Garden Network has flourished, over the last fifteen years, into an institution of the Madison and Dane County garden community. In fact, in 2015, Garlynd was awarded the Public Health Madison & Dane County’s 2015 Leadership Award for his work on the program, which he accepted on behalf of the administrators and incarcerated men at Oakhill.
Garlynd says the program is meant to serve as a restorative approach to institutionalized vocational training and breaks down barriers between incarcerated people and the communities that they will return to. “The division between the communities is just perspective and perception. The fence is not a boundary. That’s what we’ve proven.” Garlynd knows that the program provides the men he works with the rare opportunity to build relationships with and contribute to the well-being of communities outside of the institution, a deeply restorative practice. This kind of perspective allows the program’s gardeners to build the kind of skills and knowledge about networking they can use upon release.
The Kid’s Garden Network serves around 35 youth-focused community gardens throughout Madison and Dane County. In total, the program donates over 12,000 edible and ornamental seedlings to these gardens each year. In addition to the plants and food that Oakhill provides the community through the Kid’s Garden Network, the horticulture program also produces around six tons of food that makes its way back onto the plates of those incarcerated at the institution. Tomatoes, basil, garlic, chives, and a myriad of other produce is grown in the horticulture garden which takes up just about one quarter of an acre. Garlynd delivers additional produce to several food pantries in Madison. The seedlings that are used for the Kid’s Garden Network, however, are grown solely inside and around the greenhouse. Inside, and surrounded by bright and colorful ‘thank you’ cards and pictures from various kids and community gardens, the men speak about the impact the program has on them and their goals upon leaving Oakhill.
This year is Mr. S’ second growing season with Jason Garlynd in the greenhouse. He had previously been trained in graphic arts and screen printing but now says he’d like to pursue farming and sustainability as a career when he is released. He currently has a formal apprenticeship in progress. Mr. S started the program in February of 2015, which marks the beginning of the growing season. He had previously gone through the horticulture training program at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution where he was also involved in a restorative and community-focused knitting group. Garlynd says Mr. S came into the program with a high recommendation and that he has helped to bring strong restorative practices to the horticulture program at Oakhill.
Mr. S looks forward to the kinds of professional and employment opportunities the program fosters. He says he feels like he will be able to have knowledgeable conversations with people in the organic farming industry because of what he’s learned in the program. He has family members who run small farms and wants to learn as much as he can in hopes of going into business with them.
“The first season I came through was about seeding and germinating small plants. I was kind of overwhelmed the first year. But now I feel like I’m seasoned a little bit…I like the idea of growing my own stuff and learning how to make my own stuff. I’m already planning on how to learn how to make my own pizza sauces and my own homegrown stuff.”
Mr S. says that the work he does in the greenhouse is different than some of the work his peers are doing at Oakhill. He sees the benefit in the partnership with community gardens and says he sees the effects on both sides of the equation. “Prison jobs are a little bit different. Some guys don’t care, they mostly slack, or they’re just trying to get through. But when you know you’ve got a motivating end like this it’s positive, it’s beneficial. And at the same time I get to learn. So it’s really cool…The reward at the end is to give all the plants to the community and the kids. I mean, that motivates you right there.”
“The basic line is it just helps us connect. It connects us with the kids and families and other people who are needy. It lets us look beyond ourselves, so that’s positive. And also helps those of us who have been in for a while or at the point where we’re ready to go home, it helps us reconnect. It’s a transitional opportunity as well. Start focusing on out there instead of having our whole minds in here.”
In May, when the seedlings are ready to be transplanted, coordinators from community gardens make the trip to Oakhill to pick up the plants they ordered in the previous months. In fact, many enter the facility to get a full run-down of their order and receive additional information from the program’s participants. Mr. S says that this part of the project allows himself and the other participants to see firsthand the kind of impact they are making on the community outside the facility.
“Last year meeting and greeting thirty organizations that came in was really cool, listening to their stories opens up your mind. Knowing that the organizations have to pay out of their pocket to get this stuff going, and that we are able to help with some of that is tremendous.”
Mr. N, another participant in Oakhill’s horticulture program, is new to the process this year. Before he became incarcerated, he spent over twenty years as a chef in Madison.
“For over sixteen years I’ve been doing fresh from the garden to the dining room. I would order my food from my local farmers and everything else.”
He says he has hopes of working in the industry again upon his release. Furthermore, he wants to take the skills he’s learning in the garden into additional future projects. “If I can combine this with my experience in the restaurant business I can see a very nice combination.”
He says he even sees potential to build off of the Kid’s Garden Network as a part of that business and can see a collaboration between education and sustainable farming and dining. “I’d like to get more kids involved with it as well. I know a lot of rural high schools have greenhouses and they have their students doing certain things so they would be able to give something back to the community, so that middle school and high school kids would be able to learn about the gardening part of it in the greenhouse but then also make some money for their classrooms too.”
For Mr. N, the program offers a potential shift in cultural misconceptions about people in prison, in addition to its material benefit to the community. “I’m getting goosebumps right now just talking about it, the fact that over 10,000 people are gonna be affected because of the work that we’re doing here.
There’s a lot of love involved. I’ve got a big heart and I think it’s awesome that we can give something back to the community. The community’s perspective of what a convict is and reality are two very, very different things. Every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
He offers a reminder of Wisconsin’s ecological heritage and the ways in which our community is founded on notions of sustainability and community. “What is going on here is that today’s generation of children are learning where their food actually comes from, how to be a responsible citizen of our planet, and the importance of treading lightly on our planet.”
Part II to be continued in the August 26 issue.