A different kind of walled garden
A tour of a prison vegetable garden, a look at how the produce is used to feed inmates, & how the program is used in the prison’s resettlement program
Some years ago I was wandering around a small horticultural show when I heard something unusual. It was a woman saying to another that the prison has scooped up all the awards again. The Sulby Horticultural Show is an annual country event that invites gardeners to enter their best fruit, flowers, and vegetables for judging. I looked again and sure enough, the Isle of Man Jurby Prison was listed on many of the winning entries.
Since then I’ve often wondered about the prison vegetable garden. I also found it curious that their veg was entered into the show and wanted to understand why. If prison is for punishing criminals, was gardening being used as a punishment? Now years on I finally got my chance to see what it was all about for myself.
Arriving at the prison
I visited the prison on a wet and gloomy morning, its grey walls looming up to meet a grey sky. It’s intimidating entering such a secured facility even though a warm welcome awaited me inside. Not long after I was directed into a waiting room was I met by Nigel Fisher, Deputy Governor, and Johannes ‘Vossie’ Vorster, Senior Resettlement Officer. They gave me a tour earlier in the year when very little was growing. Their big smiles told me that I had a lot more to see this time around.
Vossie is the go-to man for the prison’s gardening programme and he enthusiastically showed me around the grounds. Patiently he opened and locked gates as we passed through each building, yard, and section. His easy-going nature and relaxed South African accent are in contrast to the stereotypical prison guard image.
The Prison Vegetable Garden
Outside there are three separate areas used for gardening at the Isle of Man Prison. There’s a small bed in the women’s quarters but the larger gardens are worked by the men. This is entirely because there are only two or three women in the facility compared to 90+ men. If there were more women then that area would probably be more developed. It takes enthusiasm to garden and no one is forced to grow vegetables at the Isle of Man Prison.
The men’s gardens are in two areas — one for the general population and the other for vulnerable prisoners. Both areas have open-air garden beds and a polytunnel each. What I saw growing there was a far cry from the barren soil I was introduced to back in April.
One polytunnel was filled with the most gorgeous tomatoes and cucumbers. The other had dozens of pepper plants, aubergines, and courgettes. Trays of fresh homegrown vegetables destined for the kitchen were waiting outside one of them.
Growing outside you could find your cabbage, carrots, lettuce, and everything in between. Not bad considering that none of the prisoners had gardening experience before they were incarcerated. It’s also an exposed site so the abundance was impressive given the environmental challenges.
There were only a handful of prisoners working when I was there and for discretion, I didn’t film their faces. I did speak to two on audio and you can hear what they have to say in the video at the top of this piece. You can also watch it on YouTube. One thing that still intrigues me is that they grow many of their crops from seeds saved from kitchen scraps. Incredibly, they grew all their pepper plants this year from seeds they saved from shop-bought veg. One prisoner told me about collecting them from the bin, drying them, and sowing them earlier this spring.
Another prisoner who will be released soon is already looking for an allotment — a plot at a community garden. Growing vegetables has had such an impact on him that he wants to continue gardening as a free man.
Saving Taxpayer’s money
Though the prison obviously supplies the land and the supervision needed for the programme, everything else has come via donation. The polytunnels, composted manure, additional seeds, tools, you name it. With a free and willing workforce the prison vegetable garden is now producing so much food that it’s stopped buying in veg to feed both prisoners and staff. That’s a lot of money that’s being saved on a daily basis.
There’s another way that taxpayers money is being saved that isn’t initially evident. I spoke at length with Prison Governor Bob McColm when I arrived and it was clear that first and foremost this programme is about rehabilitation. Every one of the prisoners held in their facility could be released back in our community in anywhere from a few weeks to under twenty years. He says that giving prisoners access to jobs after they’re released can cut re-offences down by 95%.
That makes our Island a safer place for everyone and reduces the cost of housing re-offenders. Though I don’t have an exact figure for how much it costs to house a prisoner every year, in the UK it’s about £23,000 — it’s probably much more than that here on the Isle of Man.
Therapy & Resettlement
Currently the Isle of Man Prison offers several vocational certificates and hopes to add a horticulture certificate soon. That would mean that prisoners could then work on the outside as gardeners and landscapers. In the meantime gardening is good for instilling responsibility in prisoners and for getting them out in the fresh air.
Many people see gardening as therapy and that the benefits of working outside are uncounted. There’s no doubt that those who end up in prison might also have emotional issues or mental illness. Using gardening not as a reward but as therapy can help address issues and make them safer for when they’re out. In the end we have to ask ourselves what kind of neighbour we’d like to live next to — one who has been ‘punished’ or one that has been rehabbed?
Progressive prison strategy
If you’re still sceptical, take the Dutch prison system into account. Last year they actually closed 19 prisons due to lack of demand. Before then they were actually importing prisoners from other countries just to keep their numbers up. What they’re doing differently is just a step up from what the Isle of Man prison is trying to accomplish. Providing a way for convicts to contribute back to society rather than just rotting in jail cells.
That brings me back to the Sulby Horticultural Show. Those prison entries aren’t just about racking up the awards, they’re a way to say hey, we’re here and we want to contribute. I think the Isle of Man Food Bank will agree as well. Every piece of prison veg entered into the show this year was donated to help the Island’s needy.