The Secret Jailhouse Garden

10-10-2019    11:00   |    NY Times

When the notorious New York penal colony closes, few will miss it. But an innovative sanctuary for prisoners will also be lost.

Set incongruously in the middle of Rikers Island’s post-apocalyptic landscape of low-slung jail blocks and razor wire is a lush garden, teeming with birds and butterflies, that seems to have been teleported down from some happier planet.

“That’s my baby,” said Mike Cruz, a stocky young man who is serving time at Rikers. He was gesturing toward a patch of flowers whose flamboyant shade of orange matched the stripes on his prison jumpsuit.

“It’s a Mexican sunflower,” he said. “I put the seeds in myself, and look at it now, it’s five feet tall. You get to watch them grow, you feel good about that. It’s like having a child.”

The two-and-a-half-acre garden where Mr. Cruz and three other prisoners were working is one of seven at Rikers created by the Horticultural Society of New York in partnership with the New York City Department of Correction.

The GreenHouse, as it is called, is the nation’s oldest and largest prison garden. It has quietly flourished for the past three decades, a period during which rampant gang violence and a scandalous culture of abuse among the guards made Rikers the most notorious jail in America.

So when the city finally closes Rikers Island, as it plans to do by 2026, few New Yorkers will miss it. But also lost will be a garden sanctuary in the nation’s largest penal colony that has a remarkable track record for keeping inmates who have worked the soil there out of prison.

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Photo Credit: Mary Inhea Kang, The New York Times

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