Rotary growing a greenhouse at Juneau prison

Sharon Gaiptman couldn’t forget what a prison inmate told her two years ago.


It was at “Success Inside & Out” at Lemon Creek Correctional Center in Juneau, a one-day annual event that helps inmates prepare for life outside of prison by having them talk to volunteers about job opportunities and education.

For the fourth of the prison population that is eligible for the event, it’s also a rare day of fun that features motivational speakers, musical acts and even a fashion show.

Gaiptman said she struck up a conversation with an inmate and asked him if he liked the program. He said he did, but not for the usual reasons. He said he liked to see the flowers growing in the flower pots that are lined up to create a “runway” for the fashion show.

“He said, ‘I haven’t seen anything growing in the seven years I’ve been here,”’ Gaiptman remembered.

That ghastly notion struck a chord with Gaiptman, and she immediately thought that she and her fellow Juneau Rotarians may be able to help out. They could build a greenhouse at the jail, she thought.

Now, two years later, that’s exactly what they’re doing. It took some convincing and many months of planning, but the downtown Juneau Rotary Club began building the greenhouse Saturday morning.

The greenhouse-in-the-making is located on the east side of the prison in a yard enclosed by barbed wire near the women’s housing.

“It’ll be a combination of the inmates being able to work here, gain skill in gardening and then be able to use the produce that they generate here,” said Rotarian Wayne Jensen, an architect who is helping with the project.

Jensen noted it should be “a pretty good size” at about 15 feet wide, 40 feet long and 10 feet tall.

“This greenhouse is large enough that they’re going to be able to get quite a crop here,” said Rotarian Sandy Williams, a local gardener. “The greenhouse I have is only 12 by 8.”

The Rotary Club does one major project a year, and this is the 2012 project, said the club’s chair of community service, Denny DeWitt. The club raises money for community projects through yearlong fundraising efforts, such as selling roses for two months each spring. The board then votes on what project it should choose. Previous projects include building the playground at Twin Lakes, a viewing stand on Egan Drive, a picnic shelter at Auke Bay and painting a mural downtown.

This greenhouse project cost about $13,000 and is completely funded by the Rotary Club, DeWitt said. The board voted for it in September 2011.

But before all of that, the Rotary Club had to first get permission from the warden, G. Scott Wellard.

It took a little persuading, Gaiptman said, but the warden jumped on board last summer after Gaiptman forwarded him an online video about another prison garden. (Gaiptman said her daughter who is in college sent it to her originally, and she can’t remember the video’s name.) Before she knew it, the warden’s assistant had emailed her back, asking what exactly the Rotary Club had in mind.

Wellard said in a recent phone interview that he was excited about the project, and that LCCC actually had a greenhouse before he became warden in the fall of 2005. It was located in the front of the facility for about 20 years but was blown over by the wind and destroyed beyond repair.

“A couple of winters and wind was all it took,” he said of the old building. “It was just a lot of wear.”

Wellard said they haven’t figured out all the details quite yet, but he envisions the new greenhouse as being an educational opportunity run by the prison’s Education Department so inmates can learn about horticulture, master gardening, landscaping and the like.

And because it’s located in a different location than the last greenhouse, which was near the front gates, it will be open to the general population, not just minimum custody prisoners, he said.

Jailhouse gardens have been around since at least the 1930s, including the famous rose gardens in Sing Sing Prison in Ossining, New York. Greenhouses began springing up in prisons in the 1980s and 1990s with surprising results.

Local media reported that the greenhouse and gardening program in Chicago’s Cook County Jail actually helped reduce the chance that offenders will re-offend once they’ve been released. One TV station reported that David Devane, Executive Director of the Department of Community Supervision and Intervention at the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, said of the 36 inmates who went through the educational gardening program in last year, only one inmate re-offended.

“It’s no magic bullet,” Devane was quoted as saying by WTTW, a PBS affiliate in Chicago. “It’s no cure-all. But quite a few of them express a great deal of satisfaction ... especially as we go on in the growing season and they can see their plants getting considerably higher. And see the produce ... and they get a great deal of satisfaction out of it.”

While the verdict on the relationship between recidivism and jailhouse greenhouses is still out, local gardener Williams believes having gardening skills boosts job opportunities and self -confidence. He and his wife have been volunteering at the Johnson Youth Center garden for a number of years and have found as much.

“We find that some of these boys when they come out are able to get into the field, either landscaping or gardening. They’re quite excited about that,” he said.

Williams says this greenhouse will grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, herbs and other vegetables that don’t grow well outdoors in Southeast Alaska due to the rainy climate.

Rotarian Mary Lou Gerbi, who volunteered to help build the greenhouse on Saturday, said she imagined it would be therapeutic for the inmates.

“I think that it’s going to give something for people to do and something to cheer them up and give them hope,” Gerbi said. “I thoroughly believe greenery and creating something versus this destructive process that they’ve been through, I think it’s just healing.”

Jensen said the club is hoping the greenhouse is complete in about four or five weeks, although it may take longer than that. Members of the Rotary Club will be working on building it each Saturday until it’s complete.

“It could take 10 or 20 weeks,” he said. “Whatever it takes is what takes.”

Last week, the inmates poured concrete for the greenhouse’s foundation. On Saturday, the group of Rotarian volunteers began placing treated lumber sill plates around the perimeter of the foundation. Soon, they’ll begin putting together aluminum components and plastic panels for the windows and rounded roof until it’s finished.

Gaiptman said she hopes the greenhouse gives the inmate she talked to at Success Inside & Out something to watch grow.

“The thing that struck me the most was the guy saying I haven’t seen something growing,” she said. “... I don’t know anything about corrections, I just think that there’s got to be something about gardening and working together. ... There’s a whole lot of people here that would probably love the opportunity to have dirt in their hands.”