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Horticultural Society to Get $2.8M to Expand Gardening Therapy at Rikers

By James Fanelli | December 8, 2016 7:44am
 The Horticultural Society of New York has been teaching Rikers Island inmates how to garden since the 1980s. They are set to get their first contract with the city to expand the program.
The Horticultural Society of New York has been teaching Rikers Island inmates how to garden since the 1980s. They are set to get their first contract with the city to expand the program.
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Courtesy of Edible Manhattan and the Horticultural Society of New York

ELMHURST — The Horticultural Society of New York is about to get a lot of green from the city to grow its successful gardening program on Rikers Island, where inmates tend to plants, fruits and vegetables as therapy.

The nonprofit is set to ink a $2.839 million contract with the Department of Correction — funding that will allow its instructors to work with adult inmates housed in mental observation units.

The city will hold a public hearing on the contract Thursday, after which the DOC can finalize the deal.

"We’re very excited and it’s been a longtime coming," said Sara Hobel, the society's executive director. "I think the nature of the program is just win-win."

The Rikers program took root in the 1980s and became more formalized in the 1990s. But until this contract, the society has largely self-funded the program, relying on donors to cover costs.

Currently, adult inmates serving sentences at the city jail can work on a 2-and-a-half-acre garden site. The society also runs an education program for detainees who are 19 to 21 years old. The DOC contract will allow the society to expand its Rikers program to the weekends and work with inmates with mental health issues.

DOC approached the society about the contract as part of its reform push to reduce violence at Rikers and create sustainable paths to employment for released inmates.

“DOC is very excited about the possibility of expanding the Horticultural Society of NY’s program at Rikers to include horticultural therapy skills for adults in mental observation units," DOC spokesman Peter Thorne said. "Improving care for adults identified as having mental-health needs has been a focus of our reforms, and this program would further that end.”

Inmates enrolled in the program spend four to five days a week for several hours at a time tending to everything from cactus to ornamental plants to habanero peppers while learning how to prune and deadhead. More than 300 inmates in the past eight years have earned apprentice gardener certificates, and four have earned full gardener certification, according to the society.

Some graduates of the program even became landscapers after they left Rikers.

But one element of the program is having inmates to pick foods to grow. The budding green thumbs later turn their harvests into meals. Recently, an inmate started growing a melon patch, according to Hobel. The program participants made salad from the watermelons and cantaloupes they grew.

Hobel said that many inmates have suffered through trauma. But gardening gets them back into nature and helps them to open up, she said.

"People feel rewarded by their work when the plant comes up, when the fruit grows when the grass is cut," Hobel said. "People start to share things."