By Jacklin Bolduan
“Wisconsin’s state motto is ‘Forward.’ That is what is happening here, we are going forward. Wisconsin has a long history of my type of conservatives, those men and women who are into true conservation of this beautiful state’s natural resources. As the birthplace of ‘Earth Day’ this is exactly the type of program that needs to be happening in Wisconsin. Who know which of today’s generations will be the next Gromme, the next Georgia O’Keeffe, the next Gaylord Nelson, or the next Aldo Leopold?”
“Knowing that the seeds we planted in February, the seedlings we transplanted in March and April, and the plants we’ve given away in May will impact so many children, families, and communities is extremely rewarding…I think we’re at a really, really interesting time right now. We’re at a crossroads here not just as a culture as a whole, around the world. We have to make sure that our footprint as a global community is smaller”
Mr. N knows that even his own daughter would appreciate the work he does, “Her favorite snacks are vegetables…I can’t be there for my children the way that I want to be there for my children but what I can do is this, I’m doing this for my kids.”
Mr. B, another garden worker, first began work in the institution’s chapel garden. He was referred to Mr. Garlynd by Mr. S at another institution when he heard that he would be transferred to Oakhill. Mr. B wrote to Garlynd and began work in the garden when he arrived. He says that he’s happy to contribute to increasing exposure to gardening and growing for those youth in Madison who, like himself, grow up in difficult environments.
“It’s a good feeling to know that we’re doing something to help the kids. And to get them interested in gardening. It’s something I wish I had the opportunity to do when I was a kid. I grew up in a different environment. I never really had that opportunity to do stuff like that.”
Mr. G, the Garden Manager, has been working in the program with Jason Garlynd the longest. This is actually Mr. G’s second time at Oakhill. When he was at the institution from 1999-2001 he was training in the culinary program.
“Part of learning culinary is that you wanted to learn where the food came from. And that was something I didn’t know and I wanted to.”
When we was released he found employment at a landscaping company, one which Garlynd is in touch with. They are happy to offer interviews to newly released men from Oakhill, especially knowing they have been trained in the horticulture program by Garlynd. Mr. G also worked in a restaurant on Madison’s west side as well as a project manager at a construction company. He says the initial transition was tough. Now that he finds himself back at Oakhill a second time, he’s aiming to regain a sense of focus he had years ago.
“I just want to get back to where I was. You know, I need to get back that focus. When I left here I was focused. Within a month I was working, I had three different jobs. I was focused. And I need to get back to that point and this is the way you dial it in.”
“That’s one of the reasons why I love, especially, being in the garden. The garden is just so demanding. I mean I’ve been in the construction field in Dane County for the last ten years. I’ve been everything from an owner to a project manager from smaller to bigger projects. This is if not more demanding at least as demanding as some of those projects. It’s like dialing it backwards for you. Out there, obviously, you can call somebody to come do this, come do that, every machine that you could want and then you get back up in here and it’s like ‘Okay! We’re back hands-on again.’ To me it’s rewarding. I love going back at the end of the day and just being dog tired. It’s a great feeling. That’s why I enjoy it.”
In addition to gaining the focus and skills he’ll need once he leaves Oakhill again, Mr. G says that he values the opportunity the program provides to make connections with community members, hopefully changing their minds about what it means to be an incarcerated person. When asked what he wants people to know he says, “That we actually care. People have that conception that we don’t care. You know, we’re in here doing our time. We’re definitely not doing it for the money. You have to care about what you’re doing. The plants don’t get to be this beautiful on their own, they need some type of nurturing.”
After the plants leave the care of the men at Oakhill, they make their way to gardens across Madison and Dane County where they are planted by kids, volunteers, and garden coordinators.
At Frank Allis Elementary School on Madison’s east side, Carol Troyer-Shank has been directing the school garden for the past five years. She heard about the Oakhill Kid’s Garden Network through the Madison GROW Coalition, a group of advocates that promotes outdoor learning. Troyer-Shank says that the work of Garlynd and the men at Oakhill is invaluable to the the school’s garden.
“I just count on the program so much. It is just a huge contribution to know that in early May I can go and get all the plants I need. I can plan my gardens and then the children can do the planting. It’s just a huge, huge help. There’s no way we could do all these starts ourselves.”
Although Troyer-Shank does all of the planning and coordination for the garden, the students help her with the planting. She says she doesn’t think they completely understand the connection they’re making with Oakhill, but she says she knows there are students at the school who have connections to the prisons around Madison.
Troyer-Shank says her investment in the men at Oakhill goes far beyond the donation of the plants. “It really does my soul good to see the respect with which Jason treats his partners there. And he’s just so professional in how he runs the program and treats those guys with such respect. It just does my soul good to see that there’s a part of our society that knows about restoration of the soul and restoration of human life and it comes into the life of the plants. It’s just remarkable…It’s the highlight of my planning year.”
On Madison’s south side, Karime Perez also prepares for planting at Centro Hispano, an organization that works to provide services and education to Madison’s Spanish-speaking communities. Perez is a coordinator for Centro Hispano’s Wellness Initiative. The plants from Oakhill that Perez and other coordinators and volunteers work into their gardens this growing season will serve as the materials for cooking classes throughout the summer. The classes are free and provided to anyone from the community. They are hoping to build a mobile kitchen by the end of the summer so they can extend the reaches of their programming and food beyond the south side of Madison.
In addition to the cooking classes, the food grown in the gardens is available to anyone who wants to harvest it. In the future, Perez says they plan to produce enough food so their entire back garden and parking lot become edible spaces for the community. They have even begun composting near the garden this season and have plans to extend their growing area to the police station’s land next door. Centro Hispano works with several local cooks and farmers and relies on their expertise for the success of the garden.
Community partners like Troyer-Shank and Perez are concerned about what might happen to the Oakhill Kid’s Garden Network should Jason Garlynd ever leave the program. The men at Oakhill also worry it won’t last without him and stress the importance of supporting the program and its partners in the community.
“What we need is job opportunities to continue to develop these skills out on the street. The community connection, the local food.” Garlynd asks, “How do we formulate this to really sustain our community?” One of the way is through internship programs reserved specifically for graduates of the garden program. In the past, The Community Action Coalition, a nonprofit organization that supports communities in poverty in Dane, Waukesha, and Jefferson Counties, had such an internship. Currently there are no organizations that hold specific grants for internships like these, something Garlynd is urging the community’s businesses to consider. He also says that getting more kids involved in the gardens will spread the benefits of the program to more communities, and that kind of support will hopefully make its way back to the men at Oakhill.
Mr. G knows the fragility of some of the vocational programs at the institution. When asked what the public can do to keep the garden program running strong he says, “Support it…In other institutions there’s programs that just stopped because funding ran out or funding went somewhere else. And here is a program that is actually giving back.”
The Oakhill Horticulture Training Program and Kid’s Garden Network address a particular challenge for communities in Madison. With Dane County sporting one of the highest incarceration rates in the U.S., such programs allow those who experience incarceration in Madison to build meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships with those who are often most hard-hit by incarceration: low income communities of color. Furthermore, the restorative aspects of the program are shared by both the incarcerated men and communities in need of healing outside of the fence. This is the mission of Jason Garlynd and the men he works with. He offers a quote from Aldo Leopold, a leading U.S. conservationist with Wisconsin ties, “We shall never achieve harmony with Land, any more then we shall achieve absolute justice and liberty for People. In these higher aspirations, what is important, is not to achieve, but to strive.”