Teaching Inmates Hydroponics
The John E. Polk Correctional Facility is not just the county jail, but it is also a place for learning and growing… literally! The jail, located in Seminole County, has a working hydroponic greenhouse staffed by female inmates. The greenhouse has been a place for inmates to seek solace while working with plants for many years. While finding peace of mind is significant when dealing with life’s traumas, it doesn’t equate to learning skills that result in behavior changes and, ultimately, a reduction in recidivism rates.
That is why the Correctional Facility has partnered with UF/IFAS Extension in Seminole County to offer a formal training program for inmates on the subject of hydroponics. The class offers a Certificate of Completion in Hydroponic Growing after participating in a multi-day training from the classroom to the greenhouse. Topics include hydroponics systems, nutrient management, integrated pest management, structures, and artificial lighting providing the academic classroom component and the hands on in the field element. The participants get to continue to hone their skills after the class under the enthusiastic leadership of Deputy Angela Hunsinger.
In addition to providing training and inspiration to inmates, the hydroponic training program aims to increase production of fresh produce for inmate consumption in the facility. I see the potential to determine space, staff, equipment, and scheduling requirements to operate efficient, productive, and profitable hydroponic greenhouses throughout our community. Specifically, I want to see if we can figure to a way to produce lettuce locally for school lunches. Working with inmates to determine the specifics of this vision is a win- win!
Hydroponic growing is a very sustainable form of agricultural production requiring 95% less water and 80% less land compared to traditionally grown crops. Agricultural is the second largest industry in Florida, yet less than ¼ of 1% of the population claims farming as their occupation, and the average age is 59. Needless to say, we need to train a new age of urban farmers familiar with hydroponic growing techniques. It is not hard, but it is technical. The captive inmate audience is an ideal audience for me to work with!
While some of the class participants just enjoy the opportunity to learn about something new, others are planning their growing futures! At the very least, the ladies that have kids are eager to go home to grow a head of lettuce with their children. There is something quite therapeutic about working with plants. Personally, I love working with plants because they do not talk back!
After the class, I tallied evaluations. There was lots of good feedback, and overwhelmingly, the ladies showed interest in learning how to grow flowers using hydroponic techniques. Just as flowers have evolved many impressive adaptations to thrive, even in the most unlikely of circumstances, working with these ladies is like growing flowers without yet knowing how the blossom looks.