UF/IFAS Sumter County Extension has a contract with the Federal Bureau of Prisons to teach vocational horticulture at the Federal Correctional Center in Coleman — the largest federal correctional facility in the United States.
For the past 6 years, Sumter County Extension has been training inmates for horticulture certifications with the goal to reduce recidivism through a meaningful education and job skills, helping the students be successful in re-entry to free society. For many, a job that allows them to support their family will keep them from re-incarceration. With nearly 250 students now released, preliminary results indicate a recidivism rate of consistently less than 10 percent. This compares favorably to a national average of nearly 60 percent.
Florida requires a certificate and accompanying license for anyone applying fertilizer commercially to residential lawns. Sumter County Extension students earn that certificate (passing rate is 95 percent), the Green Industries Best Management Practices (GIBMP). After completing the GIBMP, students study the Florida Nursery, Growers & Landscape Association Certified Horticulture Professional program. It’s a difficult certification to obtain and the passing rate is 97 percent. These two qualifications make it much easier for them to obtain employment in the green industries (nurseries, landscape maintenance, etc.) as ex-offenders.
Teaching in a correctional facility has its challenges. Security is the main focus at a correctional facility, so sometimes education has to take a back seat. There can be lockdowns, shakedowns, weather events, viruses (most recently chicken pox), causing delays and class cancellations. Even mowing the grass or fog will shut down morning classes. Afternoon classes on Thursdays always start late because it’s “Fried Chicken Day” and the cafeteria lines are longer than usual.
Instructors start with an escorted badge, and after a year, may earn the highly coveted unescorted badge. This is worn like a badge of honor and all the staff compliment these long-timers on “growing up.” Daily security checks include passing through X-ray and a metal detector for entry. Instructors learn to dress differently, avoiding metal parts in clothing to save time and inconvenience.
Success with the students depends greatly on the ability of the instructor to treat them with respect and no preconceived bigotry. The rewards are immeasurable. One long-time instructor, Susan League states, “The 1st day of class, you look at the many students and so many eyes are lifeless. Then once class gets going, you see life in them. They ask questions and laugh.” Students who have already completed the class ask to come back and volunteer because “working with the plants calms me.” One student commented that the only time he could forget he was in prison was when he was in the horticulture class. Research and our experience has shown working with plants to be excellent therapy to improve mental health and well-being.
According to League, “In additional to saintly patience, FCC Coleman/Extension instructors must have the ability to laugh at all situations, genuinely care about their students, as well as throw preconceived notions and bigotry out the window. It also helps to be incredibly tenacious and hate losing. It’s like climbing a mountain and reaching for that summit. Every obstacle you overcome is a success and a reason to celebrate. To me, these men are not statistics; they are human beings that need help. Can we help them all? No, I’m not that naïve. But we would be remiss not to help those we can.”
Lloyd Singleton is a Florida-friendly landscaping agent at the UF/IFAS Sumter County Extension and the interim director at the Lake County Extension. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.