An organic gardening program at a high-security prison in England is helping reduce drug use and improve the lives of inmates. The Mandatory Drug Test (MDT’s) failure rate at HMP Rye Hill in Northamptonshire, England went from 30 percent to nearly zero over the course of a year through its organic gardening program.
In 2010 the United Kingdom government mandated a new direction for its drug policy that included funding for rehabilitation efforts and programs for incarcerated individuals. This paved the way for Garden Organic, a U.K.-based charity that promotes organic growing practices, to partner with HMP Rye Hill and the G4S Drug and Alcohol Recovery Team (DART) to develop a targeted horticultural intervention program for inmates with substance abuse issues. While gardening programs in U.K. prisons are not rare, HMP Rye Hill is the first in the U.K. to adopt such a program as a substance abuse intervention tool.
Master gardener programs within prison environment studies convey positive impacts as conveyed in a 2003 study by Grimshaw and King, which examined 104 horticultural projects in prisons and secure psychiatric facilities across the U.K. These programs create a sense of ownership, help the participants develop life skills, and provide educational, occupational, and rehabilitative benefits.
And at HMP Rye Hill, a commissioned report, as well as inmate feedback found the master gardener program led to a range of positive outcomes that include: improved self-esteem and self-control, better health and wellbeing, a shared community and improved communication among inmates who work toward a common goal, and behavior changes inside and outside the prison.
In a hand-written letter by one inmate who is now nearly 40 years old and admits to being a crack addict by 20, he says, “At Rye Hill, I decided to get clean and the only way I could do that was out in the gardens. Believe me, if a full-blown addict like me can do it, so can you! Just jump on a shovel or roll up your sleeves and dig in! Believe! Achieve!” Another inmate wrote, “It has changed my behavior and drug taking; things are changing without even realizing it.” In addition, Steve Thomson, Garden Organic’s Operations Manager, tells Food Tank, “During the time inmates have been working on the organic garden at HMP Rye Hill, almost all have passed the MDT, which is a significant improvement over the 30 percent failure rate from the beginning of the program.”
HMP Rye Hill attributes the success of the program to its unique combination of traditional drug rehabilitation therapy and the creation of shared organic garden spaces, designed and planted entirely by the inmates. Thomson tells Food Tank, “Giving ownership of the gardens to the inmates creates a sense of responsibility. It provides a space where inmates can reflect on their rehabilitation and therapy sessions while they participate in meaningful, purposeful therapeutic activities in their organic garden. At its heart, it is a safe space.”
As an added benefit, prisoners share and consume what they harvest to promote health and wellbeing. Prison food typically lacks in proper nutrition, and studies show crime rates are highest in the most nutritionally deprived communities. A 1983 study of 3,000 imprisoned juveniles conducted over 24 months demonstrated that the removal of refined sugary foods and beverages from their diets resulted in improved behavior. During the study period, there were 21 percent fewer serious antisocial acts, a 25 percent reduction in assaults, a 75 percent reduction in the use of restraints, and a 100 percent reduction in suicides.
Garden Organic believes in the organic cultivation of food, which has resonated with the prisoners and their personal circumstances for various reasons. Thomson told Food Tank, “The prisoners like working with nature rather than opposing it. They also like the chemical-free approach to food growing because many of them are trying to rid their bodies of chemical dependencies. And lastly, the long-term planning and preparation required in organic gardening are teaching them patience; nothing comes quickly in gardening. They are used to the instant gratification that comes with drug or alcohol use. Over time they start to think differently about their lives; they change their expectations and consider the consequences of their actions.”
As a result of successful programs like the one at HMP Rye Hill, prisons around the world are now recognizing and implementing horticulture programs to provide inmates with opportunities for rehabilitation, work skills, and to reduce the rate of drug and alcohol abuse.