Inmates appreciate gardening related educational programs

Over the past two decades, Michigan State University Extension staff have taken the lead in educational programing at correctional facilities across the state, positively impacting the life of inmates.

One of the first MSU Extension Master Gardener Volunteer Programs to be offered in Michigan was at the Kinross Facility in the Upper Peninsula in 1994. Since that time, Master Gardener and other gardening programs have been offered in many correctional facilities across the state. The goal of this article is to encourage such educational programs and offer some tips to increase your chance for success.

The first step is to contact and work closely with a staff person at your local facility. This personal relationship will be critical as you work through the paperwork and red tape that is necessary to complete before the program can start. My initial contact for the Kinross program was actually with an officer who completed the Master Gardener program through the local MSU Extension office and then as part of his volunteer hours he encouraged me to collaborate with him to offer the program at Kinross. His knowledge of the policies “inside the wires” was valuable as we planned for the Master Gardener program. The Master Gardener Volunteer Program is still being offered at Kinross today.

Policies dictate the procedures for instructor clearance, materials and equipment that are allowed, class schedule and safety issues. Having a staff person participating was helpful to maintain communication between the inmates and the MSU Extension staff. There seems to be an increasing interest in topics related to learning “life skills.” Gardening is a popular topic in many correctional facilities since there are usually both flower and vegetable gardens that can be tended by inmates during the growing season. As a community service, correctional facilities often donate vegetables and greenhouse-grown bedding plants to non-profit organizations.

Once you have decided to offer a program at a local correctional facility, there are a number of steps to take.

  • Make contact with a staff person who will collaborate on the educational program.
  • Set a schedule of educational sessions.
  • Send a list of instructors to the facility for criminal history checks.
  • Secure a room location, dates and time.
  • Determine audio visual equipment needs and what is approved by the facility.
  • Email a list of materials that will be brought into the facility and left with inmates.
  • Email a list of materials that will be brought into the facility and carried back out at the completion of each session.

On the day of the session that you are to teach, there are a number of procedures that you will have to follow as you arrive at the correctional facility.

  • Carry in as little as possible.
  • Do not wear any jewelry.
  • Dress appropriately. Each facility has written regulations related to dress code.
  • Do not wear strong cologne or perfume.
  • Bring current driver’s license or other pictured ID.
  • Instructors must wear a belt that a personal protective device will be attached to.
  • You will sign into a guest log book, with time of arrival and time of exit.
  • You will fill out forms that will list the items that you will carry into the facility and leave with the inmates and a list of items that you will carry into the facility and bring back out with you.
  • You will be searched before you are allowed to enter and will be asked to walk through a metal detector.
  • You will be given a personal protective device to be worn while in the facility. This device is for your protection and can be activated if you feel at risk at any time during your visit. Once activated, a silent alarm alerts guards to respond immediately.
  • A corrections officer will escort you to the location of your program and will stay with you during the entire session and then escort you back out.

Over the past 15 years, I have had the pleasure of teaching a variety of Master Gardener Volunteer classes and other related sessions at correctional facilities across the state. By following the proper safety procedures and guidelines, I have never experienced any threatening situations. In fact, I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the inmates and staff. Based on verbal and written feedback from inmates and correctional facility staff, these educational programs have made many positive impacts on the participants and their local communities. I encourage others to get involved in working “inside the wires.” In my opinion, this is another example of MSU Extension making a difference in people’s lives.

Related Events

Related Articles

Related Resources