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On Plants, Prisons, Workforce Development and Sustainability in Howard County, MD

posted Jan 26, 2017, 5:32 AM by Lori Lilly

Sustainable community development generally focuses on the intersection of environmental, social and economic aspects of development.  While I have dedicated my education and career to the protection and conservation of natural resources or, more broadly (and simplistically), “the environment,” I am becoming more interested and passionate about the integration of environmental platforms to help meet other societal needs.  In fact, I think it is becoming more and more necessary to explicitly link environmental, social and economic objectives as our world, despite (or because of) an ever increasing population, is becoming more and more limited in terms of funding, time and resources to devote to these issues individually.  Recently, I’ve been working on a project in Howard County, MD, that exemplifies a process for working towards achievement of multiple environmental, social and economic objectives.

In Howard County, we have been fortunate to have progressive thinkers in elected, appointed and staff positions.  Through local advocacy  efforts, a program was created, Restoring the Environment and Developing Youth (READY), three years ago with the dual goals of providing employment to the County’s young adult population and meeting requirements of environmental regulation that require improving the quality and health of local streams as well as the Chesapeake Bay.  Young adults, age 16-26, proceeded to build, maintain and are now even designing rain gardens and conservation landscapes, fulfilling not only permit requirements but also community needs for beautification, education, outreach and engagement and the development of a stewardship ethic on behalf of our County’s young people, something that they will continue to carry with them (hopefully) for the rest of their lives.

The READY program has been evolving with each successive year.  I learned a lot about the program in the summer, 2014, when I joined the crews as Operations Manager.  Coordinating the work of six crews (often working in different parts of the 254 square mile County), two trucks and two designers with a de-centralized base of operations was a challenge.  Although READY (thankfully) receives a great deal of support from Howard Community College for training space as well as space for storage of materials, it is not a permanent home and any given task that seems like it would be a simple operational maneuver, would more likely be nested within a logistical puzzle/occasional nightmare.  A quick example of a typical situation on any given morning:  Crew A is ready to plant their rain garden at Site E.  Plants for the garden are located at each of our two storage locations (12 miles from each other, 15 miles from Site E).  Driver B takes his truck (a rented Penske truck, which is already packed with rain barrels and rolls of corrugated black plastic pipe because we have nowhere to store supplies) to pick up the plants.  The driver does not know all of the plants so someone familiar with plants (a designer or me) meets the driver at both plant storage locations to load them up and the end destination to lay them out.  While plants are being loaded, Crew C runs out of landscape cloth at Site G.  Driver B runs by the hardware store to pick up the cloth en route to Site E, sending out a group text along the way to make sure no other supplies are needed from the store.  As plants are being unloaded at Site E, Crew D calls to report that they will be finishing up Site H and will be ready to start a new site that afternoon.  It wasn’t anticipated that they would be finishing up so early, so we must quickly make sure it is okay to begin work at Site X by contacting the landowner.  Turns out to be okay, so we call to reserve a sod cutter for the afternoon, making arrangements for Driver A to pick it up after he is finished dropping off a yard of river rock at Site M.  Driver B is tasked with moving Crew D’s tools from Site H to Site X.  Whew – all that in a couple hours and still the afternoon (and rest of the week!) to go…

Being a “plant person,” I’ve been particularly interested in the Plant Operations aspect of READY.  Throughout my life, I’ve spent a good deal of time tending a home garden, working in a greenhouse and on an organic farm, studying plants, drawing wildflowers, incorporating them into my Master’s thesis work and, one of the last projects that I was initiating before leaving my job in Oregon, was working with the National Park Service to establish a native plant nursery for watershed restoration projects.  Circling back to READY, I found myself exploring this same latter project idea– why spend $10,000-$15,000 each year on plants when the gardens were producing tons of seed that we could harvest and grow ourselves?  It would add another wonderful learning and workforce development aspect to the program, as well as increase overall program sustainability.

Starting a native plant nursery is no easy endeavor and we don’t have a base of operations so how to get this going?  I sent out a survey through a national list-serve to gather information from those that have started or currently work in native plant nurseries.  I collected information such as start-up costs, operational costs, lessons learned, etc.  I also visited some local nurseries and got advice from staff at the Maryland National Capital Park and Planning Commission, Chesapeake Natives and Fairfax County, VA.  One interesting lead that I got from the nation-wide survey was from someone in MN who informed me of a model that they employ with their County Correction facility – they started a horticultural program for in-mates and work with this population to grow native plants for restoration projects.  What a great idea!

I cold-called and e-mailed the Director of our Howard County Corrections Department and he was very interested in a collaboration.  We are still exploring and it is looking like we will have some grant funds to build a greenhouse at the facility that the in-mates can maintain.  This is particularly awesome because the maintenance aspects of the nursery are very time-consuming – we’ll get this labor for free and the in-mates will 1) have something to do on-site (particularly valuable as it costs more to engage in-mates in activities off-site) and 2) learn job-related skills that may assist them when they are released.  Our County Corrections facility also already has a vegetable garden space where they grow food for themselves and the food bank so this whole idea of growing was not a big stretch for them.  Since I had some native plant seed collected from the fall, I went ahead and worked with two in-mates in December to plant it in a portion of their vegetable garden space:


It was cool to work with the in-mates.  I was both nervous and curious as to how it would go – they asked a lot of questions about what we were doing, the READY program (they were 19 and 20 years old themselves), job opportunities and the seeds that we were planting.  One of the guys showed particular interest in the variety of seeds that we had (seeds are fascinatingly diverse in shape, color, size and texture) and I showed them pictures of what the plants would look like when they grew up.  They particularly liked the hibiscus, which has a very pretty, showy flower.

I’ve since been reading up on gardens and growing in prisons and, not surprisingly, gardens in prisons have therapeutic properties for both the prisoners and staff.  Prisons are harsh, institutional settings and gardens can help inmates manage behavioral symptoms exacerbated by the sterility, tension, and alienation of the prison environment. For staff, gardens can provide relief from the harsh social environment of their work place and provide healthful benefits in terms of stress reduction.  Several long-running prison garden programs showed that inmates benefited from involvement in the program both during incarceration and post-release. Participants reduced negative or self-destructive behaviors in several ways, including a reduction in illegal activities (from 66.7% to 25%), fewer friendships with criminal associates, limited reliance on damaging familial relationships, less drug use, and an increased desire for help[1].

A prison in New York has a stellar model that they employ with their GreenHouse and GreenTeam programs: These programs work in tandem – in-mates learn horticultural skills through the GreenHouse program and transitional work, job search skills, and job placement, and aftercare services through the GreenTeam program.  We environmentalists need to look for more opportunities to marry our “environmental agendas” with other societal needs.  There are simply not enough resources to not do this.  It’s going to take a lot of creativity and initiative to develop new partnerships to facilitate this kind of work but, in the end, we will all benefit because our programs and efforts will be that much more resilient to changes in funding and political climates and that much more successful at achieving our collective goals for a better world.