Carleous McDaniel shifted the overflowing foliage on top of a raised garden bed made of refabricated wood pallets to get a better a look at the patch of melons growing underneath. He lowered his head slightly, inspected a fading green tendril on a miniature yellow watermelon about the size of a coconut, and instantly knew the fruit wasn’t ready to be picked.
“When it starts browning like this,” he said in July while pointing to the tip of the discoloring vine, “and it gets brown all the way down, then the melon is ready.”
McDaniel admits he didn’t always know how to spot a ripe melon. Nor did he have a green thumb for most his life, he said. But all that changed in the spring of 2017, when he started to study horticulture and began to grow fruits and vegetables while serving time at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility, a state prison in Doña Ana County.
McDaniel was part of a group of inmates at the prison who established the first – and only – therapeutic garden program at a state-operated prison in Southern New Mexico. Now boasting more than a dozen different vegetables, fruits and flowers, the garden grew out of an idea from two inmates and morphed into an unexpected oasis in the desert, functioning as a nontraditional, skills-based learning environment for the inmates.
The garden program is the result of an ongoing collaboration between New Mexico State University’s Cooperative Extension Service – the educational outreach arm of the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences – and a cohort of 16 inmates at the prison, who are mentored by Jeff Anderson, an agronomy and horticulture agent for NMSU.
“It’s grown into something magnificent,” McDaniel said. “We started it and we were just going to plant flowers (and) have areas where guys can come out and relax, a change of scenery from being inside around brick walls to out here in nature.” But, he added, “That transitioned into, well, let’s do crops that we can eat – and we end up with this.”
Efforts to create the garden began in 2016 under the leadership of former inmates Ryan Crawford and Davis Wilson, said Sandra Lopez, who serves as the classification officer for the inmates in the program, who are housed in a facility now called GOAL (Goal, Opportunity, Accomplishment, Learning) pod.
The “vision” for the program, according to a letter written by Wilson, came when Lopez addressed the inmates in their pod during a lockdown. She pointed out their growing lack of productiveness, he noted, and issued an ultimatum: start a program of their choice that would keep them busy, or have one chosen for them by prison administration.
That’s when Wilson got inspired. He had previously served time at two different private correctional facilities in New Mexico, both of which had greenhouse and garden programs – and he believed something similar could be accomplished by the inmates in GOAL pod.
“I knew that if the facility would allow us to do the garden,” Wilson wrote, “it will work,” because, he added, “it will take communication team work, time, hard work (and) skills. All that is required to make it outside of prisons. And our main goal was to try to help everyone, creating a foundation for real change to occur: reducing recidivism.”
Lopez then took the idea up the chain of command for vetting and approval. Lengthy discussions and negations followed, she said, before the deputy warden signed off on the program.
Still in need of a mentor who could teach gardening skills and dedicate time to the program, the inmates turned to NMSU, Lopez said. In October 2016, they drafted a letter explaining the program and mailed it to a graduate student working in NMSU’s Chile Pepper Institute, hoping their project would spark interest.
The letter ultimately landed on Anderson’s desk after being forwarded to NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service.
An Extension agent specializing in agronomy and horticulture since 2008, Anderson oversees the yard and garden programs for the Extension office in Doña Ana County.
“I got the letter in October of 2016 and I wanted to followed through,” he said, “so I contacted Sandra and said let’s begin discussing what we need to get this program started.”
By March 2017, Anderson began making weekly trips to the prison to teach classes for the inmates in GOAL pod, first covering gardening fundamentals – like soil, fertilizer and watering – before introducing advanced topics.
Later that spring, the inmates built their garden in an area of the prison just outside their pod, tilling cement-like caliche with the aid of flats rocks and a few authorized tools. As directed by the deputy warden, they planted their first crops directly in the ground.
But weeks later, when the garden started sprouting, rabbits invaded and ate everything, Anderson said. At that point, the inmates determined they needed to protect their plants by raising the garden beds. After getting permission from the warden, they built boxes out of recycled wood pallets and plywood.
“We’re getting these guys to be critical thinkers,” Anderson said. “I give them the skills and let them find solutions for the problems they encounter.”
The garden has since flourished with the addition of the raised beds.
Today, the L-shaped garden features 10 above-ground beds, containing a variety of plants, including asparagus, squash, beets, garlic, onions and jalapenos, that continue to thrive.
“No matter how many times I look at it,” Anderson said, “I am so amazed at what has been accomplished in just a little over one year, especially when everyone pulls together to make things happen.”
According to Ashley Espinoza, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Department of Corrections, the garden program founded by the GOAL inmates is currently one of two such programs in the state prison system, and the only one in Southern New Mexico.
Such programs are vital because 96 percent of inmates in state custody “will return to our communities,” Espinoza said. “It is important that they leave with skills they can use when they get out, so they don’t return (to prison),” she added.
And that’s Anderson’s goal.
“I’m trying to teach skills, not just gardening, but landscaping, and ideas and opportunities for starting a business,” he said. “If they’re not going to be able to be hired going back to the cities and towns they came from, they will have learned important skills here, this will help them start their own businesses and hopefully not return to a life of crime.”