• By Julie Stefanski
  • In 2018
  • September 26, 2018

The Freedom to Harvest Hope

Prisoners at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) at Retreat in Hunlock Creek, Pa., grow produce to fight hunger. The first time I visited SCI-Retreat to pick up produce for the Al Beech West Side Food Pantry I was terrified, but to my surprise the unexpected happened. My determination to fight hunger  outweighed the fear of entering a prison. Five inmates work 8 hours a day in the garden with their hands as their only tools. Not only do they work daily on personal growth, they impact the outside community in a positive way.
I expected to see a prison full of angry and dangerous men working in a meek garden with limited resources. I was wrong. The men harvested more than produce. The garden was the size of a tennis court with sunflowers skyrocketing around the perimeter. It radiated grace, beauty, and gratitude. The garden illuminated a sense of freedom, community, and pride.  During an interview an inmate told me, “I feel trusted and free for the first time in many years. The garden provides hope for what the future holds.”

Garden Transformations

The garden redefines the prison environment fostering purpose and comradery between staff and inmates. The garden transforms inmates into men dedicated to self-improvement who are eager to give back to the community from inside the prison walls. An inmate said it best, “The garden provides a positive sense of self-worth. It offers the ability to make a commitment and put forth effort.”
The typical prison environment has limited access to nature. Prisons are isolating, chaotic, and overcrowded. The SCI-Retreat initiated a therapeutic garden program to provide inmates the opportunity to experience the benefits of working in nature and create a productive path. Their garden impacts four main aspect of an inmate’s life: physical, cognitive, social, and psychological. The chaplain refers to the garden as a refuge for inmates to meditate, pray, grieve and reflect in a serene environment with privacy.
Chaplain Tyler Parry says, “In this day and age, and especially in Pennsylvania, when mental health facilities and resources are inadequate, police have become mental health first responders and prisons have become mental health treatment facilities. We have to think about mitigating those dolorous effects on everyone here in addition to particular treatment for those with diagnosed mental health disease or personality disorders. The garden does that: it improves the mental health environment for everyone.”

Building a Partnership

My ability to overcome my fear of entering a prison established an unexpected partnership. The SCI-Retreat forged partnerships with local hunger relief organizations to provide fresh produce to low-income families. Over 1.5 million in Pennsylvania people struggle to eat a balance meal and 37% of those people do not even qualify for food assistance programs. If we are going to win the war on hunger, unforeseen collaborations are necessary.
We can all learn an important lesson from a garden worker at SCI-Retreat:
“Knowing change can be accomplished in all situations if and only if we make a choice to seek it out, make a commitment, put forth the effort and believe in ourselves, then that knowledge shows that something can come out of nothing.”
Clancy Harrison MS, RDN, FAND is a Registered Dietitian,  TEDx speaker, and Food Justice Advocate challenging the way health and hunger are approached in the United States. She speaks to thousands of healthcare professionals, non-profit organizations, and universities every year about food dignity and food access. Download 3 Ways to I.G.N.I.T.E. a Culture of Food Dignity with the People You Serve to transform the health of your clients.