A man stoops over a row of plants with his hands folded behind his back, closely examining the colour of the leaves and the moisture of the soil.
Around him are hundreds of plants of varying species, each requiring their own care and consideration. To him, they are his children—he has been tasked with caring for them.
Nearby, several other men are busy pruning stalks and preparing for spring growth. Soon, their brightly-lit greenhouse will be shaded by a jungle of plants, which will grow out of reach.
Despite wearing the same uniform, these men aren’t scientists or certified horticulturalists. They’re inmates.
To some, planting a seed and watching it grow might sound like a monotonous task. But to inmates at the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) in Oliver, it’s therapeutic, and perhaps life-changing.
The food they grow is donated back to the surrounding communities.
“It gives you a feeling of satisfaction,” said Kim, whose full name is being withheld due to privacy.
“It’s way better than sitting inside on the unit.”
The OCC is a multi-level, medium security prison, which is in its third year of operation.
The greenhouse itself is outside the secured perimeter and only inmates classified as “open-custody” are permitted to take part in the program.
Inmates can attain open custody status after completing a review of their incarceration. The review determines whether or not the inmate going outside the secure perimeter is a risk.
For the past seven weeks, Kim has participated in the OCC greenhouse program—an initiative launched to teach inmates new skills, giving them a sense of purpose and a new outlook on life. He is currently serving a three-month sentence for an undisclosed crime.
“We’ve got just about everything growing in here,” said Kim.“This side’s tomatoes and cucumbers and that side’s a mixture of everything, you name it.”
At peak season, the greenhouse has the potential to grow massive amounts of produce , as many as 200 cucumbers a day.
For the most part, those working in the greenhouse are left alone while they garden.
However, there are only about 15 men in the program who have earned this taste of freedom.
“Everybody’s a fresh face,” said Kim. “You try and help each other, it goes a long way.”
He said the greenhouse is a means to work, provides a routine and offers a sense of accomplishment.
He added some working in the program have never experienced this before.
“It’s kind of nice,” he continued. “Some people have never done anything before.”
It’s at this time Kim nods at another inmate across the greenhouse.
“I don’t think he’s ever had a job before,” Kim explained. “Now he’s in here doing this, and he’s right into it.”
Their schedule is similar to that of a regular workday, starting at 8 a.m. with garbage duty and then moving on to the next task. They conclude around 2 p.m., but Kim explained there’s always more work to be done.
“It’s never-ending of course,” he laughed.
In addition to tending to the plants, Kim is involved in the propagation of the latest crop.
He looked around proudly at the growth of the tomato and cucumber plants.
“I planted every one of these,” he exclaimed. “It makes me feel good. They’re like all my little babies.”
At the OCC, the program was spearheaded by two individuals, warden Debby Rempel and assistant deputy warden of work programs Candice Wagner.
Wagner has worked with criminal offenders for 10 years and has worked in the programs sector for 18 months. She said she loves to see both staff and inmates excel at what they do.
“If you’re growing a fruit, you plant it as a seed,and you see the rewards come to life,” she said.
“Giving back to the community is such a good feeling.”
Food harvested through the program is donated back to the community through programs such as Meals on Wheels, and the local food bank.
Meals on Wheels is a non-profit community program that operates out of the Penticton Regional Hospital.
Additionally, it organizes the Breakfast Learning Club, a program that aims to provide nutritious breakfasts to elementary school students. The greenhouse program at the OCC also donates produce to the Breakfast Learning Club.
A man released earlier this week, on (Feb. 25), was a regular worker in the greenhouse program and Wagner believes he took many of the life skills he learned in the OCC program with him when he left.
Rempel said corrections staff are not punitive at corrections centres, but rather try to give a sense of purpose to inmates to carry with them after they are released.
“We are here to give people opportunities when they get out, to have some skills and to understand and see that there are people out there who want to help them and that there are people in here who want to help them, and want them to be successful,” she said.
“That, I think, is the joy that we get out of our day.”