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Expanding program helps inmates learn greenhouse skills

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr.
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

Each plant has different needs, the gardener says. Some impatiens won’t thrive in direct sunlight. Orchids are delicate and can only be watered once a week.

And the greenhouse is trying a new technique with the basil plants, placing cuttings into flower pots made of newspaper, which will break down as the plants’ roots spread into the soil.

It’s detailed, meticulous work performed in a humid greenhouse in northern Charlotte just a few yards from Interstate 77.

Hours later, when the day’s work is done, a corrections officer will unbolt two padlocks that secure the barbed-wire topped gates around the greenhouse. The gardeners will be searched for contraband – anything from a spade to a stray clipping. And the gardeners, in their orange jail uniforms stenciled with “Mecklenburg County Jail” on the back, will appear no different than the other inmates.

For four years, Mecklenburg’s jail has conducted a horticulture program for eligible prisoners who don’t pose significant security risks at Mecklenburg Jail-North. Administrators say the vocational program teaches life- and career skills to inmates, who can use what they learn to find jobs when their sentences are up.

“It seems like not a big deal, but they’re actually planting a seed and seeing it grow,” said Sheriff Chipp Bailey. “This may be the first time that they’re seeing something positive come from their efforts.”

The program started with a few tables in a mostly-empty greenhouse but has blossomed in the last year – 2013 will be the first year the greenhouse will operate in all seasons, said Rob Dixon, the Inmate Programs Vocational Coordinator.

The cost of the program is covered through charges inmates pay to make telephone calls.

At the end of a four-week session, inmates get a certificate documenting their new expertise.

“You’ll be prepared for a job out in the real world,” said an inmate named Demarcus, who declined to give his last name.

The plants they grow make their way back to communities throughout Charlotte.

The greenhouse supports 63 community gardens, including one at nearby Carolinas Medical Center-University. The gardens donate the seeds and occasionally put in special orders. Heirloom tomatoes are popular. More gardens are requesting plants grown without synthetic fertilizers.

On a visit by the Observer last Wednesday, inmates were preparing plant beds for squash, hot peppers and basil.

Mecklenburg Jail-North is the chief supplier of seedlings for Friendship Gardens, which supports a meals-on-wheels program, Friendship Trays, that feeds more than 750 elderly and disabled people across the county. The organization has tried to increase the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables it serves to people who receive its meals, and draws on a network of dozens of gardens across Mecklenburg. Those gardens get their seedlings from Mecklenburg jail, decreasing the amount of time it takes to get food from field to fork.

“If we planted tomatoes on April 15, that’s up to four months you have to wait before you get your first fruits,” said Kathy Metzo, the garden development director at Friendship Gardens.

Basil, shallots, onions, garden beans, red peppers and broccoli sit in a greenhouse on the group’s property. All of the plants started as seedlings grown behind the barbed wire fence that houses the jail’s greenhouse.

So do many flowers and plants that line the entrance to the jail and parks across Mecklenburg.

An inmate named Shaka, who also declined to give his last name, says it makes him feel good knowing that he’s giving back to the community. His mother has a garden, but he’s never been interested in it until now. And he wants to see the plants he helped grow.

“I want to see it out there,” he said. “Maybe go to one of these parks, go see some of these impatiens.”

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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