A22-year-old man with an attitude problem arrived not long ago at the Erie County Correctional Facility in Alden. You could just tell, Superintendent Thomas Diina recalled, this man was going to have a rough stay.
So Diina and his management team did the most logical thing they could think of: they put him into the horticulture program.
A criminal turning his attitude around by working with flowers?
“You saw the transition from street punk to growing up,” Deputy Superintendent John Rodriguez said. “Even the language, the profanity, stopped.”
The man didn't know anything about plants, but his greenhouse assignment led him to “mellow right out,” said John Fisher, the supervisor in charge of the program.
“I'm around plants and in a relaxed environment,” inmate Nick Hart said. “I did a lot of yard work for my father, so working with plants, working with nature was something I enjoyed.”
But when he arrived at the jail several months ago, Hart said the last thing he expected was an assignment working in a greenhouse at the Alden facility.
“I don't like being indoors. I prefer being outdoors,” he said.
So the greenhouse, Hart said, provided an unexpected oasis.
After a 10-year hiatus due to budget cuts, the correctional facility's horticulture program is back this year. It gives inmates an opportunity to work with plants, vegetables and flowers in the facility's greenhouses. In conjunction, the correctional facility also offers other types of work through its Service Action Corps, allowing well-behaved inmates to complete service projects throughout Western New York.
Hart's success story is not unusual. Tales of the program's ability to change lives have spread.
Fisher can't walk down the correctional facility's halls without an inmate stopping him and saying, “Hey, are you Fisher? Can I get into your program?”
There is a waiting list.
Out back of the Alden building are the penitentiary's two greenhouses; a third is under construction. The inmates have built all of the structures, and they grow and maintain everything within them.
Inside, the colors are radiant as flowers flourish. Rows of yellow and orange marigolds mingle. Baskets of purple Angelonias and white lilacs hang above them. It is a serene sight behind bars.
This is not just a transformative system for the inmates; it benefits the community, too. The Service Action Corps sends the lowest-risk prisoners around conducting projects such as gardening, building tables, painting and more. Recently, a group did landscaping in front of the Erie County sheriff's administrative offices on Delaware Avenue in downtown Buffalo.
The Service Action Corps and horticulture program employees work 35 to 40 hours per week. They do projects at Erie County Medical Center, various churches, the Botanical Gardens and more.
“They're mentally active,” Diina said. “They're performing meaningful work. They're providing a service to the community. I think, overall, it benefits their mental health in that they're not just languishing in a jail cell doing their time. They have a sense of purpose.”
“Being around good people, working as a team, and enjoying what we do,” he said in summing up the stimulation he relishes from this type of work. “Starting off from a seed to a blossom shows your hard work.”
The horticulture program had been cut as a result of Erie County's “red/green” budget crunch in 2004.
It originally started in 1990, and the facility's managers started discussing bringing it back in 2011. From that point on, Fisher was in Diina's office almost every day asking when they could get the greenhouses again.
Before Diina even made a phone call to put the plan in motion, he took a ride out behind the facility and found brand new lumber up on the frame of one of the greenhouses. “He had already started building the greenhouse before I could line anything up to get the program going,” Diina said of Fisher.
Fisher becomes a father figure of sorts for many of the inmates he supervises. Hart said he calls him “Papa Fisher.”
“OK, they did a crime. They come here, and everybody thinks a jail is a bad place to be,” the 68-year-old Fisher said, sporting a green John Deere hat and peering through spectacles, his face covered with a white beard. “When they come in here, none of them ever thought they'd be working in a greenhouse or doing painting, waxing floors, mowing lawns at cemeteries.”
He has witnessed a few inmates turn their lives around due in no small part to the program. Several have even landed jobs out of prison for the organizations for which they provided services while doing time. Fisher has received numerous letters from inmates updating him on their lives – many letting him know the program led them to a job.
“That's the best letter we can get: that a former inmate has gotten a job based on a skill they have acquired while they were incarcerated,” Diina said.
The program is funded by the inmate commissary fund, so it is virtually no cost to taxpayers.
Some might say allowing criminals among the general populace is a risky proposition.
“You're not going to please everybody,” Diina said, adding that there are always security officers on hand. “We have had those comments in the past, but we've never had any type of incident involving the Service Action Corps.”
The jail also provides educational programs, including a creative writing workshop (there are 18 currently registered and a stack of request slips for entry is piling up), employment training, and classes for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.
Having seen the horticulture and service program have an impact on lives – such as that of Hart – made Fisher so excited to bring it back.
“That makes me feel good because you know you're doing something,” he said. “You hope they continue that on the outside.”
When the inmates are discharged, they receive a certificate of completion stating they have completed a certain number of hours as part of the Greenhouse/Horticulture Program or Service Action Corps. Some have worked there for as long as 16 months.
The certificate gives them something to present at job interviews – something that allows them to show they have used their time behind bars to good advantage.
The program is perhaps a symbol for the men engaged in it.
“They take pride in their work,” Fisher said. “Some baskets originally they didn't like, they thought they looked like weeds or didn't care for them. Now they're asking me, 'When I'm off, can I take a basket home?' They really like their quality, because they see it rise from a seed or a little plant into its full-grown self.”
As for Hart, he says his goal is to learn a construction trade after he leaves jail, but his lessons in the greenhouse have helped to prepare him for life on the outside.
“Working with flowers and plants,” he said, “has relaxed me and taught me patience.”
News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this report. email: email@example.com