For some time now we’ve all known that gardening is among the best pastimes for both physical and mental wellbeing - but it’s also being used to help rehabilitate prisoners and give them hope for the future, writes By Hannah Stephenson, Press Association.
We’ve seen prisoners help construct gardens at major horticultural shows - prisoners from Leyhill won a gold medal at the Chelsea Flower Show one year - while HMP Whatton in Nottinghamshire recently won the RHS-backed Windlesham Trophy Competition for the seventh time for the best-kept prison garden in England and Wales.
Another prison that is making full use of horticulture is HMP Send, a women’s prison in Surrey which, thanks to The Clink Charity, is helping rehabilitate prisoners through growing fruit, vegetables and flowers and backing up that work with recognised horticultural qualifications.
Many of the 282 inmates are serving life or very long sentences. Up to 20 women train in the garden on a daily basis, 15 of whom are studying for a City & Guilds NVQ (level 2) in horticulture.
Those chosen for the garden project are trusted prisoners who are nearing the end of their sentence, although there’s one lifer on the current scheme who is learning to drive the on-site tractor and helps oversee the gardening novices.
The 4.5-acre garden complex features 11 polytunnels and a glasshouse where prisoners tend everything from basil and French beans to Florence fennel, three varieties of tomatoes - pomodoro, marmande and Pink Charmer - blueberries, borage and butternut squash.
There’s also a heated greenhouse where seeds are sown and more tender crops are started off.
I visit the prison on a grim, rainy day and once through the strict security gates and imposing fencing topped with barbed wire, I come across beds of primroses, aubrieta and lilac, ornamental grasses, alliums and Japanese maples.
More gates are unlocked to access the horticulture and garden complex, which also features fields of flowers that are grown and cut to put in the women’s dining hall and communal areas, plus six hives with 50,000 bees supplied by a local beekeeper.
I am shown the tools they have access to - secateurs, rose thorn strippers, floristry knives, which are kept on secure ‘shadow boards’ to provide a quick inventory and identification of missing items, or in locked cabinets, where they are stored for counting and collection.
Some 300 eggs are laid weekly by the 45 Rhode Island Red chickens, many of which are sent to The Clink restaurants at nearby HMP High Down and Brixton prisons.
In the classroom, the inmates will learn the theory of good garden practice by vocational trainers before being sent to work.
Prison governor Carlene Dixon says: “It gives them focus, normality, something to keep them busy and a sense of self worth.”
The prison also has links with industry and helps them, with support from The Clink, when they are released.
“The great benefit is to give them back their social skills. They are working an eight-hour day as part of a team. They are gaining confidence and are proud of what they do. Their identity might initially have been their crime or sentence. That can change with their achievements,” she says.
Some 75% of the vegetables and salad items grown at the women’s prison are used in The Clink’s gourmet restaurants at HMP High Down and HMP Brixton - The Clink also has an award-winning restaurant at HMP Cardiff and another at HMP Styal in Cheshire.
I follow the food trail to the nearby men’s prison HMP High Down, where, after the obligatory security check, we are welcomed into a dimly-lit but welcoming restaurant.
The stylish decor of glass tables and wooden chairs (all made by the prisoners), and the beautifully presented and delicious food, all cooked and served by inmates (many of whom are on vocational courses), makes me hopeful that this is a positive step towards rehabilitation.
So far, five prisoners have been released after completing the Send garden project. None has re-offended. But the project only started in 2014 and official figures won’t be available for another 12 months - so watch this space.
For more information, visit theclinkcharity.org