Could we repair America’s broken criminal justice system and quit our addiction to industrial farming at the same time? Catherine Sneed thinks so.
Photo by Ethan Lofton
“There is a lot of environmental work and repair that needs to be done. Work that people could do instead of sitting in jail and going to jail,” says Sneed, co-founder of San Francisco’s Garden Project, a project that empowers former offenders and at-risk youth through training and education urban gardening.
Since 1992 the Garden Project have helped hundreds of ex-offenders and at-risk youth develop job skills, advance their education, and rise out of poverty. Through the project’s Earth Stewards program participants study basic horticulture, landscaping, and organic gardening. This hands-on learning is combined with classroom education that addresses their needs as individuals.
There are literacy and computer classes as well as a series of lessons addressing relational and personal development, topics like “active conversation” and “responding to anger.” The Garden Project primarily serves youth that San Francisco Sheriff Michael Hennessey describes as “extremely high risk.”
“For the most part they are in single parent homes or foster homes. If they do have parents they are unemployed or in jail. Most are African American and Latino. The biggest problem for all of them is extreme poverty,” Sneed says. “We are trying to address that by helping them get jobs skills while paying them a livable wage.” Senior apprentices — participants who have been involved with the Garden Project for at least 2 years — earn $13 an hour.
The organic fruits and vegetables grown in the garden are donated to low-income families and seniors. Participants also support neighborhood greening projects, cultivating plants for schools and public spaces, developing gardens at housing developments and police stations, and contributing to community clean-up efforts.
The Garden Project has planted over 10,000 street trees in San Francisco over the past decade. For $1.1 million dollars a year, which goes directly to salaries for these youth as they contribute to their communities in tangible and pragmatic ways, San Francisco’s taxpayers have received innumerable benefits. “People who have good jobs tend to get arrested a lot less,” says Hennessey. “People that don’t get arrested, crimes that aren’t committed, families that don’t get broken up. They don’t come to my jail.” By funding the Garden Project the Sheriff’s Department and the Public Utilities Commission have taken a step towards repairing the divide between government and people. “It is community trust building,” Hennessey said.
This sort of empowerment, sometimes referred to by criminal justice academics as “horticultural therapy,” has an impressively high success rate. According to Hennessey 80 percent of ex-offenders re-offend. When the Garden Project had programs specifically for ex-offenders less than 25 percent of the participants returned to jail.
“[Sneed’s] had people in her programs that before had been to prison dozens of times. And once they were in her program they never went back,” Hennessy says.
Sneed herself believes that the program’s success hinges on the fact that these it provides a viable way for participants to feed their families. “This wouldn’t work if it was volunteering,” she said. “I’m not going to jail and your not going to jail because we have jobs. This is the reason why our jails are full of people. The poor go to jail. They have no high school diplomas and can’t get jobs.”
Unfortunately, while there are still avenues for ex-offenders to stay involved with the Garden Project, its programs specifically for ex-offenders were discontinued in 2000.
According to an investigative report by NPR’s Laura Sullivan in 2009, California’s prison system costs $10 billion dollars a year and only 5 percent of the budget is spent on education or vocational programs. While programs such as Sneed’s have proven to pay for themselves many times over, Hennessy says that the current culture inhibits many public officials from making such programs a priority.
“Everybody in criminal justice knows that the fail rate is extremely high. The fear of working with at-risk populations is that you’ll get blamed for it if someone does something horrendous, something ‘newsworthy,’” Hennessy says, referring to the infamous 1987 case of Willie Horton, a participant in an experimental parole program who raped a woman while he was on parole. Conservatives used the media frenzy surrounding Horton’s crime to discredit opponents supportive of criminal justice reforms and it destroyed more than one political career.
“There’s a feeling that if you are just doing what you are mandated to do, imprison people and putting them on parole, then you are not responsible for the crime that’s out there,” Hennessy says. “They don’t want their fingerprints on it.” He believes that it would require a huge cultural shift for programs like the Garden Project to become the norm rather than the exception. It would require media audiences more interested in success stories than controversy, so that politicians would be more concerned about effectiveness than potential scandals. It would also require bravery on behalf of everyone involved in the criminal justice system, both officials and offenders. “It takes public officials that are sincerely committed,” Hennessy says. “And it takes success stories willing to come forward. There are thousands of them that Catherine has. But that is a lot to ask of someone, to be the poster-boy or poster-girl for ex-offenders. They’d rather not have their coworkers know that they are an ex-offender at all.”
The good news is that the Garden Project’s programs have proven that it is possible, and cheaper, for the jobless from marginalized communities to learn organic gardening at government buildings instead of being trapped inside them. The project’s success suggests that even urban areas can have sustainable, local food systems that benefit both the communities and their environment.
Leigh Cuen graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2011 with a Bachelor’s in media studies and a minor in Middle Eastern studies. She has written for El Tecolote newspaper, New Voices magazine, J. weekly newspaper, and the Palestinian News Network in Bethlehem. She has also served as the copy editor for various art blogs, including those of the late Crawdaddy! magazine. She hails from Orange County, California, left her heart in Jerusalem, and currently lives and works in San Francisco.