The Secret Jailhouse Garden of Rikers Island

Oct 04, 2019 · 50 comments
Wade (Robison)
His fondest memory of the garden, he said, was when Ms. Krus brought a bucket full of water that had rose petals soaking in it for Mr. King to wash his feet in after he had waded into a pond full of algae scum. “It was amazing,” he recalled. “My feet felt tingly for hours.” This brought tears to my eyes as I read it. What a loving act of kindness! Brings to mind Jesus washing the feet of his disciples and Pope Francis washing the feet of Muslim immigrants. If only we all could be so kind to one another!
B. (Brooklyn)
Probably about a century ago now, a distant cousin was arrested for bringing marijuana in from Mexico. He spent a few years, I guess, in a federal penitentiary. His job was to take care of the garden. A decent, contemplative sort of fellow, he enjoyed his visit.
MIMA (heartsny)
Transplant the Riker’s garden planting’s somewhere in Central Park. There’s room. Make sure prisons have gardens. The Mamas and Papas have a song “Safe in My Garden” - listen to it and take it seriously.
lucky13 (NY)
A garden can certainly bring solace. Here are some lyrics I remember from the song I learned in Girls Scouts, The Ash Grove: Down yonder green valley where streamlets meander, Where twilight is fading, I pensively roam. ‘Twas there where the blackbird is cheerfully singing Each warbler enchants, with its note from the tree. ‘Twas then little think I of sorrow or sadness The ash grove enchanting spells beauty for me. (It’s better with the music!) Well, excuse me, I have to go dig up my giant Elephant Ear Black Magic plant for the winter.
I-Post (Washington, DC metro area)
This is nice for the prisoners and I appreciate efforts to reduce re-entry into prisons. However, I can't help but think about those of us who can't afford a freestanding home with even a small beautiful garden like this. Public gardens aren't close enough for me to visit often. How about many more community gardens for common folk like me? Maybe this would reduce crime. We need respite too. The closest I get to a garden is fragrant bus fumes and subway brake dust dirt.
Mary Ann (New York)
@I-Post I like passing by community gardens; they refresh my awareness of the joy and beauty of nature.
This is such a purposeful program; I wish there were more. There are very few meaningful programs that bring humanity to the incarcerated. Not just prisoners, not just guards, but our society at large would benefit by having more of these programs (including in federal prisons). This is a real step toward rehabilitation.
Maria Geiger (NJ)
The value of meaningful work cannot be understated. Mr. Cruz calls a favorite sunflower his "baby," and says that, “you need to figure out what bad stuff to cut out to get the good stuff to grow.” Most good parents would agree with those words. Hopefully, this gardening idea for inmates will grow due to exposure from this article.
delores (queens)
This is EXACTLY what we should do for NYC homeless - especially since this Mayor installs shelters in family neighborhoods - like mine. Our shelter is packed with mentally ill males. During the day, they roam our streets, pan handling, dropping their pants, slamming bottles, screaming and threatening. My entire community has TSD. A better solution: Bus the homeless to work in the fresh air of a communal farm and garden outside the city. Come evening, bus them back to their shelter. Much healthier life than panhandling. And they could receive wages for their work. Plus, citizens in my community won't have to fear walking up the street.
Thank you for this article.
John Pecha (Long Island,N.Y.)
It's not a penal colony .Its not a prison. Its s jail.
Anne Sherrod (British Columbia)
Barbara Margolis — wow, what a difference she made. And the Horticultural Society's commitment: a story of positive forces at work against the darkness of the world. I simply detest that our prison systems treat people inhumanely. What kind of a stupid society takes in troubled people and stores them in degrading conditions so that both the prisoners and the prison keepers further lose their humanity? I know how much it means to me to go out and work in my garden first thing in the morning. Why isn't there a garden program like this at every prison? Maybe someday our "civilized" society will come out of the Dark Ages. Margolis and the "Hort" and all the prisoners working in the garden are showing how it can be done.
Quandry (LI,NY)
What a great idea that I never knew about. It can be a life changer for some of the inmates.
Hope (Santa Barbara)
After reading the article, I still have questions. If Riker's is closing in 2026, is the garden going to be open until then? If the building closes, why can't the garden continue? What is the city going to do with the property? If the garden is there, why wouldn't it continue under another city program? Did the author get a response from the City?
delores (queens)
@Hope instead of closing Rikers, and putting career criminals out on city streets, why not renovate the entire prison to this level?
George (Jersey)
We talk like the closing of this facility means freedom for people. They’ll just incarcerate prisoners further away. It’s the “NIMBY NYC.” It’s like when the mayor sent homeless to the suburbs.
Kim (Michigan)
Why we do not go back to a system where the prison population actually contributes to it's own subsituance. Men actually worked on farms, the prison laundry, carpentry etc.... Giving people a sense of accomplishment while contributing to there own well being. Maybe being locked up in tiny cell all day is not the way to go.
B. (Brooklyn)
Well, I've seen prisoners doing lawn trimming and hedge cutting on the Georgia coast. Seemed healthy work to me, and it isn't as though they were a chain gang. Our liberal forebears decided you cannot force men to work. They also decided that aggressive, even bipolar homeless people shouldn't be institutionalized without consent. That is why you have four dead homeless men in Chinatown over the weekend. When will the powers that be finally realize that some homeless people need a (kinder, gentler, better run) Creedmore and Willowbrook so that people can go about their days without having to deal with erratic, violent behavior -- and decently well-balanced homeless people can find safety in the shelters?
Faith (Ohio)
“You need to figure out what bad stuff to cut out to get the good stuff to grow.” Beautiful philosophy for life.
tdb (Berkeley, CA)
And why "effectiveness" always have to be measured by recidivism rates? Why can't work in prison gardens not be considered a positive and even healing type of practice and work for prisoners while incarcerated (even if they are not effective in preventing recidivism once back in noxious environments)? It is a more humanitarian way of dealing with the problem of incarceration in inhuman conditions. At least while incarcerated these men and women (or teenagers) can have redeeming moments, even if they are not "permanent." It used to be that the way prisoners were treated was considered an index of "civilized" society.
Marilyn (Everywhere)
Prisons with programs such as this one are on to something important. Animal care programs matter. Gardening programs matter. In Ontario, there is a farm program which is also successful. When someone discovers a legitimate "passion" in life, he or she is happier, learns about the value of work, and is less likely to re-offend. Bring on more of these good ideas!
tdb (Berkeley, CA)
An oasis and place of hope in the midst of the inferno of current penitentiary systems. Working outdoors, having autonomy to plan what to plant, laboring, seeing the fruit of your labor grow and flourish. Most of these prisoners come from urban lifestyles, ut I suppose that for those with agricultural and rural backgrounds (like many migrants or children of migrants, both from abroad and from the American South) working in these garden settings must be almost redeeming. Working in teams and selling organic produce, or handing out small plots of land that they can work individually or in twosomes would be a good idea to keep them invested in work and their own projects. I still do not understand why prisoners are not allowed to work in prison or why the pay is so infinitesimal that it is laughable. Where had the rehab idea been left?
Pamela Thacher (Canton, NY)
Very likely there is a prison or jail that is located within driving distance, near any of us who are reading this article. Volunteering at that site, for any of the programs that are taking place, can be extremely challenging but also extremely gratifying. Even 2-3 hours per week can make a difference in an incarcerated person's life. (And it will give you something to do besides despair). Give it a try. Giving is addictive. If there isn't a program you like, start one that you do -- many jails and prisons are extremely welcoming of people to come in and lend a hand.
Greenie (Vermont)
If we truly are trying to rehabilitate inmates and not just punish them, then we need to act like it. Programs such as this garden, farms, nature programs etc which get prisoners out into nature and encourage them to work with plants and/or animals are valuable. The same is true for schools, nursing homes, urban residents etc. We need to prioritize programs such as this and recognize their benefits.
Rural Farmer (Central New York)
Most people thrive having useful work where the benefits can be seen, and gardens certainly fit that description. And because gardening can take time, and has failures and setbacks in addition to successes it is a great way to teach patience and perseverance, two skills everyone needs, particularly the incarcerated who at best have long difficult roads to happy lives on the outside. I find it interesting that the term correctional facility is used for places that are largely detention and punishment facilities.
augusta nimmo (atascadero, ca)
Enjoyed article, would have liked more pictures of the garden as I enjoy gardening, too.
lucky13 (NY)
@augusta nimmo Some countries (like France) require blurring prisoners' faces or disguising their identity in the press. More photos of the garden, yes: I second that emotion!
Ramon.Reiser (Seattle / Myrtle Beach)
In southern Oregon there used to be a wonderful program at the V.A. mental hospital. Then a new director diverted the funds and destroyed it. The late Marcia Vergin M.S, social work, M.S. biochemistry, M.S. pharmacology, and superb PTSD therapist often tales of how calming and effective the garden and farming program had been. I hope we can bring these gardens and farms back to help heal patients and prisoners.
Kerry Girl (US)
Thank you for this. We need more gardens in prisons, in schools, in hospitals, in nursing homes. I was fortunate to be an apprentice for six months at the farm and gardens of the Univerity of California Santa Cruz. The man who started that program, Alan Chadwick, is credited with saying "It is the garden that makes the gardener." People tend to think that we are the ones that are doing the gardening but in essence the garden is working on us too. All for our betterment.
SWD (Pittsburgh, PA)
What a beautiful last image. The washing of the feet, healing, sacred.
Jean (Holland, Ohio)
To think that some of the prisoners never had tasted fresh produce before! The kitchen of every prison could benefit from the prison’s own garden fresh produce and eggs. Gardening is good for the soul. And tending living things (plants, therapy dogs, horses, etc.,) has proven to help prisoners.
11b40 (Florida)
Great read, actually there are small therapeutic programs in many of our correctional facilities, adult and juvenile.They are successful while the individual is incarcerated, but then he or she is released back into the their home environment with little or no aftercare and the problems start all over again.
Miss Ley (New York)
A sunlight day in April with the fall of light snow seen from Tony's window, where he is tenderly caring for his bird incubator; this young boy at age eight has developed early in the city where he was born, a passion for birds and the wonders of nature. I remember all this. In Paris, a few years later we take off to a bird sanctuary, and discover 'Swan Lake'. When he throws some breadcrumbs, one of these graceful swans launches an attack on his arm, while I hide behind my childhood friend. He died in Rikers Island when he was thirty-four and before seeing this secret garden. It would have offered him solace and restored a sense of beauty to his life. On the wing of a kingfisher, a prayer for my friend and other forgotten ones, on this date in early October.
Armando de Sousa (Lisboa, Portugal)
When I lived in Manhattan, I was a member of the Hort. Society and worked for the CENYC, also active in the Green Guerillas for years, so it is likely that I would adore this article. Great idea and apparently execution. Keep up the good work! I also do not throw away plants or people-I recycle them. Also adored the idea of dog training for inmates-I could see the possibilities! Best wishes from Portugal!
Joanne (Ohio)
Two wonderful articles about the benefits of gardens and gardening in today's NYT. The other is "Garden of Solace." Don't miss it! I discovered years ago that after a stressful day at work (dealing with bereaved people daily), when I walked into my garden I was immediately smiling and more peaceful. Time to go harvest seeds from Datura and Hyacinth Bean!
Hans (Upstate New York)
This article was a pleasant and inspiring surprise. I developed a vegetable gardening and mindfulness program for teen boys at a maximum-security facility in upstate NY. These are boys convicted in adult court of serious violent crimes. In my 3 months running the program, I've been amazed at the healing power of nature. I'm a Baby Boomer and far from a Master Gardener. I've had to improvise because everything I normally use in outside gardens can be used as a weapon. I 've had to research the boys' questions on the cleanest animal (pigs), whether chickens see in color (they see more colors than we do, what are the best vegetables and ornamentals to plant for direct sun and little water, how do you improvise a tomato cage, what is soil pH, the difference between head lettuce and leaf lettuce, and a lot more. Some of these boys are doing life and will be transferred to adult prison when they are 21. Most of them will be out on the street one day with me and my children. I'm desperate for them to fall in love with the soil, self-reliance, and a sense of community that gardening brings. These are the men I hope to meet one day.
person (Nashville, TN)
Beautiful and with such far reaching effects. Imagine never eating a fresh tomato? Probably we can thank our giant process food and beverage companies for that by making their products cheap, sweet, addictive and accessible into every far corner of America and the entire world. Also, the gift to experience the incubation of eggs provides the visible and tangible lessons of the miracle of life and the special, tender care newborns need. This total package of the goodness and sweetness of life should be implemented and as common as every little shanty selling chemically altered products disguised as drinks and food.
Paul McGlasson (Athens, GA)
A fine story. Reminds me of the old Arlo Guthrie, Pete Seeger Song: Inch by inch, row by row Gonna make this garden grow Gonna mulch it deep and low Gonna make it fertile ground Inch by inch, row by row Please bless these seeds I sow Please keep them safe below 'Til the rain comes tumbling down And this verse in particular: Old crow watching from a tree He's got his hungry eye on me In my garden I'm as free As that feathered thief up there To find freedom even in captivity must surely bring a fresh perspective on life.
theconstantgardener (Florida)
Our county detention center used to have a nursery staffed by inmates. Pots and potting soil were donated and members of the public could purchase plants at very reasonable prices and the hort professor who oversaw the program was very generous with his time and gardening advice. He told me that one of the inmates who worked in the nursery told him that for the first time, he (the inmate) didn't wake up wanting to kill someone. And then the county shut down the nursery to expand the facility. The detention facility is a pipeline for prisons run by corporations and in FL, prisons are big business. It's a no brainer that hort programs and dog training programs for inmates are a powerful form of healing.
Re4M (New York, NY)
The quintessential difference between our failing Criminal Justice System (“CJS”) and other successful CJSs is that prisoners at those systems are educated and trained for life outside of prison. For decades we referred to our CJS as a Re4Mative system rather than a penitentiary system. Yet, incongruently to our beliefs our leaders betrayed us and simply utilized the CJS to incarcerate the mentally ill together with criminals. Lack of training and a path to productive citizenship is still the reality of our CJS. While this article provides a uniquely limited preview of what can be achieved it lacks the stamina required to persuade our society that we need to Re4M our CJS completely. It is our hope that more publications begin to publish similar articles which promote understanding of our failed CJS. Articles that provide an unbiased introspective of how simple changes can provide hope to our fellow citizens that are currently incarcerated in the hopeless penal colonies of our CJS. Michael Cohen the author of the above has spent years promoting a Re4Mative approach to the US CJS. His model of providing prisoners with skills that are in high demand in the workforce matched with real life employers has demonstrated efficacy in the reduction of recidivism to single digits.
äneas (Weimar , Germany)
I hope that more prisons would be able to offer such gardens. Dealing with gardens and plants can help when going through a difficult phase. Wonderful article.
Theresa Clarke (Wilton, CT)
Perfect article - wonderful news and particularly about the men who get paid internships and then jobs. Hope!
B.E. (CA)
The therapeutic and healing power of working in a garden cannot be understated. I personally experienced profound healing through gardening while recovering from brain injury. We don't need more studies to tell us (though they do help in making the point) what we already know: interacting with soil microorganisms benefits the mind and the gut, caretaking for plants and insects deepen one's spiritual connection and appreciation to the earth, and growing food and sustenance reinforces one's understanding that all life is interdependent. Gardens in schools, gardens in hospitals, gardens in prisons, more funding and respect for these innovative and yet so fundamental programs please!
Rames (Ny)
What an excellent program that benefits so many. A garden nourishes the soul. Tending one is peaceful and mediative and watching all the life that is created is uplifting and rewarding. Such things can inspire possibilities, broaden horizons and change lives. Thank you NY Times for sharing this story.
Peters (Missouri)
About the title... "The secret Jailhouse Garden of Rikers Island" It's not a secret if you share it with the world. I love that they give inmates the chance to do stuff like plant a garden and watch it grow. Everyone should get a chance to do something like this. It helps to calm the soul, and it can also give you time to think.
Slavin Rose (RVA)
Nobody is the sum of their bad decisions, not even Donald Trump. At least the Mexican sunflowers will survive, they're tougher than the worst inmate.
Rachel (Brooklyn)
Barbara Margolis was a wonderful humanitarian who was also on the board of the Vera Institute of Justice when it sought to make our criminal justice system more just and effective. At that time (as now) places like Vera and people like Barbara recognized that punishment can be effective without being draconian and that people who break the law are still people and should not be condemned to misery. Gardens like the one on Rikers are one of the many ways that incarceration can offer the possibility of growth (rehabilitation). Improving the quality of life in prisons, including the way inmates are treated, the educational services they have access to, the food the are given, the contact they have with their families, etc, could make our justice system not only more humane, but also more effective. Inmates, corrections officers and the public would all benefit. If you agree, go make a donation to Vera, The Sentencing Project, The Women's Prison Association, the Equal Justice Initiative or any of the great advocacy organizations working on these issues!
tdb (Berkeley, CA)
@Rachel Good point, Thanks for the references. But so much money gets consumed in these advocacy initiatives that never trickle down into prisoner projects like this one or translate directly into action, for whatever reasons. I'll have to do research. But something like this garden project really enthralls me and I would love to donate for programs like this already running and benefitting at least a few.
eclectico (7450)
There is no pleasure like planting something, tending to it, and watching it grow.
Norah (Boulder)
There's nothing like getting your hands in the dirt, planting seeds and seeing stuff grow to feed the soul.