The Shelby County Division of Corrections facility on Mullins Station Road used to be known as the Penal Farm. In recent months, the facility has gone back to its roots.
Last week, a class of inmates — all dressed in blue jeans and blue correctional facility shirts — busily took notes about fertilizers and half a dozen grasses as part of the county's "Sow to Grow" program. Under the program, minimum-security inmates learn about gardening from staffers of the county's division of Public Works, the UT Agricultural Extension Program, and the correctional facility's on-staff horticulturalist. They also work a garden on the grounds of the facility.
"The curriculum includes veggies, lawns, herbs, and forestry," says UT Extension staffer Chris Cooper, the instructor teaching inmates about grasses and fertilizers. "Next week, we'll talk about fruits and nuts."
The facility had a garden six years ago, but the produce grown then was mostly to provide fresh fruits and vegetables for the inmates' meals. Under Sow to Grow, produce will be provided to Memphis area food banks.
"It gives inmates the chance to give back to the community," says Ann Rogers, the correctional facility's horticulturalist. "Most of them grew up in Memphis, so they have an interest in the community."
The program also teaches inmates new skills. Sow to Grow began as part of a larger program to help inmates reenter society after their time in prison.
"We hope these young men will be productive employees or be able to start their own businesses," Cooper says. "The green industry is a booming business."
Twenty-two-year-old Larry Jones, serving time for robbery, had never gardened before, but he might pursue it when he gets out of prison.
"I might even take a course in college on agriculture," he says. "This is something I really want to get into. This is something I can do."
In a bid to stabilize neighborhoods, Sow to Grow participants also are tending small flower gardens on corners and vacant lots in South Memphis and Frayser.
"Vacant lots are a nationwide issue, but we're addressing that by turning them into pocket parks and flower gardens," says Robert White, an adviser to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton.
So far, reaction has been positive.
"It's a wonderful class," says 30-year-old inmate Antonio Rucker. "It's a great investment to learn how to grow different kinds of crops, plants, grass, and trees."