Ciara Bogdanovic recounts her experience with The Horticulture Society of New York on Rikers Island.
Among the bleak-looking and run down buildings, there is a beautiful garden on Rikers Island. The garden has a pond complete with fish, raised beds that grow edible plants, a rose garden and wild flowers, and a variety of trees and bushes. This garden was organized by The Horticultural Society of New York (aka The Hort) and created by the inmates there. The organization created GreenHouse in 1996 to provide horticultural therapy to the inmates, focusing particularly on education and reducing recidivism rates. The Hort hopes to reduce the likelihood of the inmates going back to jail by providing them valuable work skills in horticulture as well as soft job skills. Lessons are given in the classroom to provide basic horticultural knowledge and include topics like seasons, which plants grow best at what time of year, and what the difference is between an annual and perennial plant. Through working in the garden, the inmates are given practical horticulture skills as well as lessons in task persistence, listening to directions, and other skills that can help them maintain a job outside of jail. In order to provide a link between the experience within Rikers and New York City, The Hort created GreenTeam. The program facilitates transitioning back into their borough and provides “provides vocational training in horticulture, transitional work, job search skills, and job placement, and aftercare services”, as mentioned on The Hort’s website.
While students at NYU’s Farm Lab are not struggling with incarceration, our education is surprisingly similar. Just like at Rikers Island, irrigation and how to crop plan around seasons are topics of classes. Some NYU students come to the farm without any prior experience and at Rikers many inmates are getting to put their hands in the soil for the first time.
In addition to the job skills that The Hort provides, it is also vital during the inmates’ actual time in jail. Much research has shown the positive benefits of gardening that range from exercise to improved mood. Within Rikers Island, the garden also provided a community where the inmates could feel comfortable to be open with one another. As an intern in Fall 2013, I was able to see the benefits that the inmates were receiving first hand. Since the garden was a work placement in jail, work had to get done within the garden, but while the inmates were busy with their hands in the soil they took the opportunity to speak with me and other inmates about their frustrations. Based on my personal experience, I have been able to recognize how safe and comfortable the garden made everyone feel. The garden was a place where inmates could finally be outside in the fresh air and was a beautiful place where pheasants and cats, humans, and nature lived in harmony. I felt lucky every day I was able to go to the garden. This feeling was one of my greatest motivations in deciding to take NYU’s Urban Farming course. I felt like I was lacking a connection to the earth and needed to ground myself through this course.
I saw a number of inmates find their peace in the garden. Every time an inmate would have their release date, the group would gather and speak about the positives of the individual. It was not unusual for people to cry and speak about how important the garden was to them. Often times, inmates would say that they do not know what they would do without the garden. I also witnessed people find their purpose. One inmate constructed arches and benches all over the farm, entirely on his own and found his happiness and self of value through his work.
The Horticultural Society of New York has provided an amazing opportunity for the inmates and Rikers Island and has been able to help them within the jail and once they were released.