$7,500 grant restarts nonprofit Lettuce Grow's programs in correctional facilities whose participants have reduced recidivism

In March, the Spirit Mountain Community Fund awarded a $7,500 grant to Growing Gardens, a nonprofit that uses the experience of growing food in schools, backyards and correctional facilities to cultivate healthy, equitable communities. Although its offices are in Portland, the organization often works in Clackamas County.COURTESY PHOTO: LETTUCE GROW - Inmates from Columbia River Correctional Institute remove weeds from a garden patch filled with colorful flowers.

Spirit Mountain's money will be used to support the goals of Lettuce Grow, which merged with Growing Gardens in 2015.

Lettuce Grow is a nonprofit that brings in volunteers who work in the correctional facilities' gardens alongside the inmates; it also provides horticultural education to inmates, giving them positive experiences, which can help their successful reentry into society.

In 2010 Lettuce Grow began its work in one prison garden, but has since expanded into working in 16 adult and juvenile facilities, noted Rima Green, Growing Gardens/Lettuce Grow director.COURTESY PHOTO: LETTUCE GROW - Inmates from Coffee Creek Correctional Facility display their Lettuce Grow certificates, as volunteer Sherri Barger (in gray sweater) looks on.

"Inmates are one of the least served populations in Oregon, often very far from home and family knowing that their felony convection will have negative implications for their life going forward," Green said. "I know it is often hard for people to empathize with people who have committed crimes, but as well as empathy I think people should be concerned about people coming out of incarceration."

Green added, "Who do we want coming back to our neighborhoods? Embittered people who feel they have very little chance at a better life because of their experience and felony convictions? Or someone who feels they have acquired some skills and some hope for a better future?"

Statistics support the success rate of Lettuce Grow's program. While the inmate recidivism rate in the United States is over 70% and in Oregon is about 30%, recidivism for Lettuce Grow students is only 4%.

Impact of COVID

COVID restrictions had an impact on the correctional system, and thus on the Lettuce Grow program, Green said, noting that in mid-March 2020 all correctional facilities were restricted. No visitors or volunteers were allowed into the facilities,

In March of 2021, Lettuce Grow staff was permitted back into sites, but volunteers were still barred from entrance. COURTESY PHOTO: LETTUCE GROW - Rima Green, Growing Gardens/Lettuce Grow director, stands with inmates from Columbia River Correctional Institute, who show their Lettuce Grow certificates on graduation day.

"Our team continues to work to ensure inmates are able remain in the program. Currently we are one of the few inmate-education programs which is up and running in the state correctional system," Green said.

The organization continues to adapt curriculum to self-paced learning and providing books and materials to help students continue in their studies, she noted.

"We are also providing seeds, plant starts and other garden supplies to sites, to ensure that inmates can continue with planting and upkeep of the gardens," Green added.

Staff is currently busy with paperwork, trying to get correctional sites running as they were pre-pandemic.

Spirit Mountain's grant money is being used to support these activities in terms of staff time and salaries, Green said.

Working with inmates

Green has been the director of Lettuce Grow for 10 years. When she retired after 30 years in the high-tech field, she wanted to take her many years of experience as a gardener and help people in the justice system.

In Clackamas County, volunteers and Lettuce Grow staff work at the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, the only state prison for women in Oregon.

"We have worked in the minimum facility for about six years, providing four horticulture classes and working with the inmates in their very extensive garden," Green said,

"This year, we started working in the medium-security facility, with inmates convicted of more serious crimes with longer sentences. As well as teaching classes, we are helping them create gardens in the courtyard of their unit."

An important goal of the Lettuce Grow program is to bring in community volunteers, who work with inmates because they want to.

"To an incarcerated individual, this is validation for them as a person, because someone cares enough to be there for them," she said, noting that it is not easy to volunteer inside a correctional facility.

"There are a lot of requirements and restrictions; the inmates are aware of the situation so when volunteers come in, they are highly valued," Green said.

Horticulture education

Lettuce Grow provides gardening classes developed by the Oregon Food Bank, Oregon State University and other educational sources. These include classes in sustainable gardening, greenhouse management and a culinary arts class developed with input from local restaurants.

These classes provide inmates with recognized job credentials, increase hope and self-esteem, and encourage inmates to pursue horticultural internships and degrees after release, among other benefits.

Also, the produce harvested from the gardens provides healthier, low-cost additions to prison menus.

"Several of our students have gone to work for nursery and greenhouse operations; Portland Nursery employed two of our former students and thought very highly of both," Green said.

She added, "After 10 years of operation and the COVID epidemic, we are still here working to better the life of incarcerated individuals in the state of Oregon."

Coffee Creek Correctional Facility inmates discuss benefits of Lettuce Grow program

Note: Because of confidentiality restrictions, no names will be used.

"The gardening program here is an essential element to my reform and overall well-being. I've learned so much, maybe it's because I've found a subject I'm truly passionate about. It provides me with skills I will likely use my entire life and possibly make a career out of. I've been diagnosed with PTSD and clinical depression, and gardening is a new outlet and escape from these issues."

"Being in this program has greatly improved my mental health. There are times when I'm in the garden and I don't feel like I'm in a prison. I feel a sense of achievement and accomplishment watching seeds I've planted turn into plants, and harvesting the rewards of my hard work. We feel like a team, not just different personalities randomly thrown together. We give the food we grow to the kitchen and they use it for the meals that are prepared. The knowledge we gain while we are incarcerated is something we can take with us for the rest of our lives."

"This garden program benefits inmates both in and out of the program. It teaches inmates in the program life skills, team building, problem solving and the beautiful art of gardening. It benefits inmates outside the program with fresh vegetables as healthy alternatives to the meals provided. It also beautifies the yard giving inmates more to look at and enjoy than just a concrete slab. The opportunity to have my hands in soil to tend and cultivate, is a space for me to work through the stress and anxiety of being in here away from my loved ones."

"We are good people who made poor choices. The gardening program benefits our entire community because it gives each person a purpose. I have learned how to help pollinate bees, and that it is completely possible to use this experience upon my release. I am very grateful to be in the program."

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