Female inmates at Oregon's Coffee Creek Correctional Facility are honing their green thumbs while serving time. Deborah Rutt (above, right) has been overseeing organic gardens at the facility for three years, teaching prisoners how to plant and tend to zucchini, cucumbers, and all manner of veggies that they and their fellow inmates then eat. With funding from an Audubon TogetherGreen fellowship, Rutt plans to expand the garden space and create composting and rainwater-catchment programs.
What are the facility’s gardens like?
One of them is about 10,000 square feet, just rows of vegetable beds surrounded by herb gardens. We’re rotating crops all the time in these beds. We have another smaller garden that’s a family garden, where children of 20 or so inmates can come into the prison and work with their moms.
Why organic gardening?
The inmates really connect with that piece. We have birds nesting in this garden space, and frogs. We have hawks that we see all the time now. That feels to them like a connection to the outside, to have wildlife coming in.
Which vegetable is most popular?
Jalapeños—because prison food is pretty bland. They're very much appreciated because they add flavor.
What’s it like working with inmates?
There are days where I feel really inspired, and there are days when it’s challenging. All of these women’s lives are in crisis. Pretty much all of them have dealt with addiction. But there’s a kind of optimism that’s associated with gardening: When you plant a seed, you have to be thinking of the future. That’s really powerful for all of us.
This story originally ran in the March-April 2012 issue as "Prison Bloom."