A novel prison program in
New York City uses nature to teach inmates about life's larger
By Maria Finn Dominguez
Breezes carried wafts of lemon balm and mint from the herb garden, hedged by apricot and nectarine trees. Monarchs flitted around butterfly bushes, and a pair of resident ducks shuttled between a marshy puddle and a carefully tended pond. Just six miles from lower Manhattan, this small island oasis in the East River seemed almost bucolic—except, of course, for the coils of razor wire running along the high fence surrounding it and the gardeners wearing bright orange jumpsuits with DOC (Department of Corrections) stenciled across the backs.
This was Rikers Island, the infamous jail, known, ominously, as The Rock. It holds 12,000 pretrial detainees who can't afford to post bail, as well as 4,000 prisoners sentenced to a year or less in jail. Eight years ago only overgrown weeds covered the two acres that now make up the Rikers Island gardens. Since that time more than 300 “students,” as a select group of Rikers inmates are called, have passed through the prison's GreenHouse Program, run by James Jiler for the Horticultural Society of New York.
In what looked like a lush little Eden, herb gardens flourished behind a greenhouse where orchids grew. A gazebo sat in a grassy area, overlooking a small waterfall and pond. The gardens' vegetables were bound for homeless shelters on the Bowery, on Manhattan's Lower East Side, and for cooking classes offered at Rikers. There was even a small forest planted with juniper, redwood, dogwood, and maple trees.
“This place is about transformation,” said Jiler, who specializes in urban ecology and urban-design projects. “The students learn that if you can transform this environment, you can transform your life, yourself. We try to use the program at the gardens to help people build self-esteem.”
On the day I visited, students were tending to buckets of black-eyed Susans that had been donated by Tavern on the Green, a Manhattan restaurant. The flowers were about to be shipped to one of the 15 gardens at libraries in low-income neighborhoods around New York City. “Most people view prisons as sinkholes,” Jiler explained. “We want to be contributing to society here. This way, by giving back to projects such as the library gardens, the students feel like part of the community and less marginalized.”
For many residents of New York's low-income neighborhoods, nature is alien, even in its most basic forms. (Jiler told the story of the time one winter when a cardinal showed up outside the greenhouse and a student asked him how much the little red bird cost.) Through the GreenHouse Program, the students learn professional horticultural skills—soil science, planting and maintaining gardens, and propagation. But beyond that, many receive their introduction to the natural world itself; turning a patch of barren ground into a rose garden, planting tomatoes, or responding to the changing seasons is often a profound experience. “The students learn that nature is adaptive,” said Jiler. “And that it gives second chances. That's also part of the therapy the gardens provide.”
Even as inmate Sheina Moore, 33, formerly a nurse technician, described the difference in caring for annual and perennial plants, she admitted she had never gardened before. “It's relaxing,” she said. “All these things I took for granted before, like where a tomato comes from. When I get out, I'm going to grow my own tomatoes. I'm even learning about ducks here—they're laying eggs everywhere. And I didn't know that plants mate. ”
Long before the island became a correctional facility, it was a stop on the Atlantic Flyway. So Jiler has encouraged the inmates to design gardens to lure back the birds. Viburnum and bayberry bushes provide cover. Winterberry bushes and crab apple trees, their branches thick with fruit, droop in the autumn light. Sunflowers attract late-summer travelers.
With the GreenHouse Program gardens thriving, Jiler started a new educational program, Project Jailbird, to count migrating birds that pass through. Each day, while going about their work, students spot, describe, and record any unusual birds that stop at the feeders placed throughout the garden. Jiler keeps the types and numbers of songbirds on a computer database. Once he has an idea of what kinds of birds are visiting, he hopes to contribute the Rikers data to the Great Backyard Bird Count, managed by Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
As with all activities at Rikers, men and women are kept separate. Working the morning shift, the women spread out in groups of two and three, weeding the herb gardens, harvesting vegetables, and tending the rabbits and ducks that, after being dumped at the Staten Island Zoo, have ended up here. To qualify for this program, inmates cannot be awaiting a trial that could send them to a long-term facility in upstate New York. Rather, they must have sentences of a year or less, and their infractions generally run from drug abuse to shoplifting to forms of domestic disturbances.
Evelyn Morales, 42, from the Bronx, was sent to Rikers on a drug-possession conviction. On this day she ran up to a group of inmates and announced finding “a bird that's not a sparrow,” describing it as “sort of shiny, with spots on its back.” After consulting a field guide, the others decided it was a starling; they were disappointed when they learned they couldn't log it, because it was not a songbird. Then a mourning dove landed on the gazebo, and the excitement started all over again.
Christine Rodriguez, a 21-year-old from Coney Island who had been convicted of selling drugs, said this was her first experience in the outdoors, and she loved every minute of it. “The rabbit won't let anybody else except me hold it,” she said. Rodriguez smiled, adding, “When I'm around the plants and animals, I forget I'm in this place. I can reflect on my past, on what got me here. And Jiler is going to help me get a job when I get out.”
Indeed, one of the most important benefits of the GreenHouse Program is the employment opportunities it provides prisoners upon release. Most inmates coming out of Rikers have lost their jobs, homes, sometimes their children to the foster care system, while in jail. The Horticultural Society hires them to work in gardens around the city, which often leads them to further their studies in the field, or helps create a bridge into other types of work.
The GreenHouse Program carefully screens prospective students to determine that it's safe for them to work with tools. Although they are considered “the cream of the crop” of Rikers, only 10 percent to 15 percent of them have a high school diploma or the equivalent. Even with career help, most newly released Rikers inmates are still marked by society and have an almost impossible time finding a job. With the odds stacked against them, the recidivism rate—the percentage of them who end up back in prison—is thought to be about 65 percent. For those in the GreenHouse Program, the rate is 10 percent.
After the women left, the men arrived at the gardens for the afternoon shift. They immediately began carrying out their various tasks—watering trees, pruning hedges, and cutting wilted blooms off the rose plants. Paul (the men declined to give their full names), 22, who was in Rikers for a drug sale, learned a valuable lesson. As a flock of sparrows passed by, he observed, “They're free and I'm not. I learn from the birds to make better choices next time. It's good to be here in the gardens, but not as good as being free.”
Along with gardening, the students were attempting to bring East Coast purple martin populations back to New York City in collaboration with WildMetro, a group that works to protect urban habitat, and City Beasts, an organization dedicated to wildlife restoration and education. East Coast purple martins live almost exclusively in human-made cavities and favor apartment-style complexes. Up to 30 pairs of birds will nest in hotel-like boxes in a year, and then return to the same nesting site in subsequent springs. The first phase is part of the restoration for the colony of purple martins that nested until two years ago in Lemon Creek Park, on Staten Island, before they were displaced by starlings and house sparrows. These apartment complexes are being sent citywide to expand the population. The new neighbors will most likely be welcome because they eat a lot of flying insects, particularly during their nesting season.
Last year Rikers inmates also built about 30 kestrel boxes and 10 bat boxes with wood donated by Steinway & Sons pianos of Astoria, Queens. City Beasts mounted these boxes near schools and in community gardens throughout the city, in hopes of enticing these animals to urban neighborhoods. The bats would eat copious numbers of mosquitoes, and the kestrels, fast and fierce raptors, would find easy pickings with New York City's mice.
The wood from Steinway tended toward irregular shapes, which made it a challenge to design the square structures favored by purple martins. The initial birdhouse built at the GreenHouse Program, placed in Staten Island, couldn't be opened for cleaning, so starlings and sparrows took over the box. The students created a second design, but this one lacked a security rail for fledging chicks.
The final design, a split-level structure with safety rails for chicks and a hinged roof that opens for cleaning, was deemed the perfect model for New York City. This would be the prototype for the others built in this ongoing project.
Students learn a lot about ecology from their participation. As Mike, a 42-year-old from Brooklyn (fighting what he claimed to be a wrongful conviction for an assault charge), painted the box white, he explained: “The birds can help control pests in the city. Less chemical sprays will be much better for our health.”
The city remained a muffled roar in the distance, and only clamor from the nearby facilities floated over the peaceful gardens. The wind carried the brackish scent of the East River, a reminder of life outside. A rejected purple martin box stood alone on a post, solitary against the razor wire in a small, uncultivated patch of the garden area. It remained uninhabited, but a few sparrows circled it and landed on the roof. “If sparrows or starlings want to nest here,” said Jiler, “we'll take them, too.”
As the shift came to an end, an arrowhead of Canada geese passed by just overhead. Hundreds of geese live on the island year-round. No one commented on their noisy presence until a corrections officer shook her head and said, “They're the only creatures that don't want to leave this place. Them and Jiler.”
Maria Finn Dominguez, a New Yorkbased writer, is editor of the travel anthology Cuba in Mind, published by Vintage Books.
© 2005 National Audubon Society