Honestly, when Troy Johnson signed on for a horticulture-training program offered at the Philadelphia prison where he was incarcerated, he wasn't interested in growing much of anything. He just wanted to cut down his time for committing conspiracy to commit robbery and take advantage of Roots to Re-Entry's promise of early parole.
But over the weeks, as Johnson worked the soil, learned skills, and watched over a garden, you could say a seed was planted. "I started liking it and really wanted to take up the offer of coming home to a job," he says. "If I didn't want to come back to this place, I had to keep going and had to do it right."
That he did. For Johnson, now 25 and living in Wynnefield, that 2010 seed eventually blossomed into his current green job as manager at Heritage Farm in Philadelphia. The city boy, with the odds against him, says he is a content farmer.
"You've got to really know you're done with the old lifestyle, done with old habits," Johnson says during a break from his urban farm work. "That's the only way you're going to overcome."
Now, 11 fresh graduates of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society's revamped Roots to Re-Entry (R2R) program, in its fifth year, are working toward the same goal of jobs.
"Everything you see they built from scratch," Tim Majoros, the program's recently appointed manager, says as he takes a visitor on a tour of the Alternative and Special Detention Unit's grounds off State Road in Northeast Philadelphia.
Over 12 weeks, inmates have made a deck and laid a stone patio near the trailer that serves as classroom, cultivated a sun garden and created benches, and established a hydroponic window garden flush with tomatoes, string beans, and lettuce, this last batch often finding its way into prisoners' sandwiches. The group even went on a field trip to the Flower Show.
In the past, the program has centered on work-release community projects that include cleaning vacant lots, planting trees, and building fences. This year, the focus has shifted to projects within the prison grounds.
Clifton Nixon, 48, of North Philadelphia, has had several brushes with the law for what he describes as "rippin' and runnin'." R2R, he says, is a new start. "Since I been here, I ain't missed a day, perfect attendance," he says as he pots bald cypress saplings. "I find peace in it."
He is especially proud of the window garden he helped design. Majoros gave the guys a hypothetical about a single mother living in the projects and struggling to provide fresh veggies for her children. Then he gave them a bunch of supplies and challenged them to find a solution.
Working in small teams, the men designed systems to hydroponically grow vegetables. Nixon's team produced a beaut. An overhead reservoir waters the plants growing in window boxes, arranged in three tiers. The water trickles from one section to the next and eventually drains into a bucket, where a pump sends the water back to the reservoir.
"When I was figuring it out," Nixon says, "I thought of my grandmother, who had pots in the window." The success of the project, he says, left him feeling energized. "I'm getting a green thumb."
Through the nonprofit Federation of Neighborhood Centers (FNC), R2R participants also learn workforce literacy, anger management, and other skills.
Upon graduation, R2R through FNC helps the men find jobs, and then continues to offer social work support for housing, child care, and continuing education. This year, graduates will have a chance to meet weekly to resurrect a North Philly garden, what Majoros calls a "halfway garden."
Tracia Wesley, an FNC case manager and job developer, keeps tabs on the men, including those first graduates. Just the other day, Wesley says, she got a late-night call from someone in a bind. "They're a bunch of good guys who just got caught up," she says.
Of 91 graduates since the program began, 29 have been reincarcerated, a rate of 31 percent - nearly half the city's 67 percent recidivism rate, according to the Department of Parole. The latest crop of graduates also made significant improvement in English and math. After 38.5 hours of instruction, inmates went up an average of 0.7 of a grade level in English and 1.2 grade levels in math.
Yoel Solís, an FNC academic instructor who works with R2R, teaches math each day. But this is no drill of the multiplication tables. Instead, Solís showed the men how to calculate volume when they needed to figure out the quantity of pellets for the window boxes. In the process, they learned to measure, add fractions with different denominators, and calculate volume. The Pythagorean theorem was introduced when they had to make square corners for the patio project.
"By relating everything to what they're actually doing, it has value to them," he says.
Laren Summers, 21, of Philadelphia, put lamb's ears in a bed he cut out, sprucing up the area around the prison pavilion in advance of R2R's graduation, which took place May 29.
"I never thought I would be good at something," he says. "But now I know how to do a lot of stuff with my hands."
That's not to say the program is without challenges. "These guys are in prison mode," Majoros says. "It's really easy to focus." Once released, though, the problems and temptations can mount.
Some former employers have found that some of their hires, though skilled, don't always show up on time for work. And the program's shift from work release to prison-based has raised concerns the men will have a harder transition.
"They had a better chance, a little taste of freedom, interaction with the community," argues Ken Kolodziej, who owns KJK Associates, a landscape management consultancy, and who helped develop R2R. (He also helped Troy Johnson land his job.)
Still, Kolodziej allows that the program has value. "You're teaching people trades, giving them something they can be proud of," he says.
Majoros, for one, cites advantages of an in-prison program. Inside, they don't have to worry about anything but the training. He also points to the improvement in English and math skills. "It's been way, way more impactful this year even though the guys are not getting out into that real-world scenario."
And, Majoros hopes, solving problems through a project-based curriculum - something the old program lacked, he says - will translate into dealing with everyday life.
"We weren't showing these guys their true potential by showing them how to mulch a bed," he says. "You can show them that in an hour."
Back at the prison, Jason Moncrief, 23, and Mark Johnson, 32, plant echinacea, bee balm, and black-eyed Susan in the sun garden. The two discuss how to tier the plants for maximum impact.
Johnson points to the garden unfolding at his feet and says, "I feel like these are my little babies."