Closed Prisons Are Being Transformed into Regenerative Community Farms

June 19, 2021 at 2:14 pm

As prisons across the country are closing due to declining incarceration rates, at-risk teens are transforming some of them into organic community farms.

A charity called Growing Change hires formerly incarcerated and/or troubled teens to transform shuttered prisons into sustainable farms that provide poor communities with healthy food and the skills to grow it.

Using “regenerative agriculture” methods, the teens are healing the land and their bodies in former food deserts.

Meanwhile, they’re giving themselves a sense of purpose, learning life skills, and keeping themselves out of trouble.

They’re also earning a paycheck, which isn’t easy to come by for young people with criminal records.

The non-profit educates at-risk teens on beekeeping, rotational sheep grazing, raising chickens, organic gardening, composting, vermiculture and soldier fly operations.

The charity’s pilot project is on a 67-acre former prison in the poor, rural town of Wagram, North Carolina.

The formerly troubled teens there are working alongside wounded veterans to morph prison cells into aquaponics tanks and mushroom cultivation rooms, the guard tower into a climbing wall, the softball field into a garden, and best of all, solitary confinement into into a giant composting bin.

They’ve also built a minivan-sized mobile chicken coop out of wire and PVC pipe salvaged from the prison drain field.

The farm distributes free boxes of produce and flowers to their food-insecure neighbors and sells eggs and produce to local restaurants and a nearby university. It plans to sell meat and wool from the sheep as well.

The prison kitchen has been converted into a commercial community kitchen, where students receiving training in preparing and preserving food and other culinary arts.

The youth are also planning to sell homegrown chowchow—a recipe that honors the various backgrounds of program participants: collards for the Black youth, tomatoes for Native Americans, cabbage for the Scotch-Irish, and jalapeños for Latinos.

“I don’t know what it is about soil, but it changes you—it humbles you, and it brings a sense of calm that the youth need,” says Davon Goodwin, a Growing Change board member and Army veteran who suffered from PTSD.

“When you’re growing food, there’s fellowship that happens that doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

Participants also have the opportunity to receive clinical therapy as part of the program.

Growing Change founder Noran Sanford is in the process of creating an open-source prison-flipping model with step-by-step instructions. He is planning to distribute it to each of the 300 counties with recently closed prisons later this year.

Sanford hopes to help others poor, rural communities convert spaces meant to confine and punish into spaces that nourish and rehabilitate.

“North Carolina is one of the last two states in which youth are adjudicated as adults for all charges at age 16,” he notes. “By the time some 16 year-olds arrive in the courts they are permanently limited in their employment due to their ‘adult’ criminal record.”

Sanford’s model of “prison flipping” has reduced the rate of relapse into criminal behavior by 92%.

“Along with offering a collection of buildings to be repurposed into education and art centers, prisons are ideal for conversion into farms because of their sturdy, gopher-and-sheep-proof fences, and large open spaces,” Good News Network notes.

“With the properties belonging to the state in decay, officials are more than happy to consign the land to such projects.”