Green Therapy In Britain's Jails

Posted on: 23 May 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

Michael Wale finds green fingers in an unlikely place: Wandsworth prison.

Prisons get a bad image. Goodness  nows why, because they look after the people the rest of us would prefer not to meet.  However, there is hope for some prisoners, when you meet people like Dave Jones.

Jones is behind two schemes to encourage those under his care to find a better life outside, than when they arrived inside Wandsworth. First of all he got them gardening within the prison by planting tubs, and hanging baskets.  They are now looking to set up small allotments within the limited land available within the prison, which houses 1,600 prisoners.

More importantly he introduced them to a scheme where trusted prisoners on licence, who are allowed outside the prison walls, can mend tools, which are then offered to schools to use. There is also a scheme where special needs children come into the prison and use the gym and then on a piece of land outside the prison are taught gardening by prisoners on their way to release.

There is another piece of land owned by the prison, just outside its walls, that Jones is planning to turn into 20 allotments, which would be the first new allotments in Wandsworth for 20 years. Within the walls he also has plans for a few allotments that would be dedicated to wheelchair access and elderly prisoners only.

He has also been talking with the Lavender Trust about a plan to grow lavender within the prison in the future.  Since they would not be allowed to sell it, he is being taught how they can turn it into oil, and use it to scent the often fusty smelling prison in the future, thus making a saving on other cleaning materials which they currently have to buy.

The great project though at the moment is the mending of old garden tools, which are then sent on to schools or other organizations that usually cannot afford to buy them.  There are collecting points around the borough so that people can dump their tools, when they are damaged or they think they are finished.

Because of the damage they could cause in the wrong hands, the work on the tools has to be done by prisoners on licence, who are ready to move out into the community, which is what Jones is trying to do all the time - and that is use the plan as rehabilitation.

“We have already set up a course where prisoners can get a qualification which can lead to a job in horticulture on the outside. Also, to people serving a sentence, the experience of planting something and seeing it grow into a plant and produce something over a short period of time, gives them great satisfaction and hope for the future.  I’ve got no doubt about it."

"We are now getting plants in from two open prisons that we can plant in the greenhouses.  Potting something up and growing it for themselves gives these men enormous satisfaction.   I started my life as a plumber. I’d start a job on a Monday, and by the Friday it was up and running.  Gardening gives these men the same self esteem that I experienced.”

Wandsworth is not the only prison using gardening not only as therapy, but as a way to a better future for prisoners. Wormwood Scrubs Gardening and Re-Cycling manager Dave Golding told me that he has set up a garden machinery course.

"We’re involved with an organisation called Blue Sky, who only employ ex-offenders, and it is the same with the people who run it. Having done our course ex-prisoners are able to find work."

"The industrial unit here has built us two greenhouses, and we now have room for a polytunnel.  We get out plants from an open prison eight miles away at Latchmere. We grow a lot of things from seed which gives the guys a great thrill. Many of them had never done gardening before, so when they see hanging baskets and other things they have created and worked on they get a great thrill.”

There is a special gardening trophy for the prison services, which Wormwood Scrubs had not entered for some time.  this year, this have just finished eighth.

"One hundred and forty prisons entered, so we were quite surprised to come so near to the top," Golding tell me.

With the Chelsea Flower Show just finishing is it not time this competition was made part of the Royal Horticultural Society’s pride and joy?  It would be another major step forward in the rehabilitation of those who are put in prison, and kept away from society.

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