Garden spot: Behind the walls of the maximum-security Patuxent Institution, a master gardening class helps inmates plant the seeds of rehabilitation.

April 13, 2000|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

Out near the guard tower, over by the big coils of razor wire and the high chain-link fence, Lisa Rubin checks the progress of the bulb garden. The crocuses have come and gone, but daffodils and tulips linger.

Rubin will be around a while longer, too, here at Patuxent Institution. She will remain well after the bulbs have yielded to the pumpkin plants, and the tomato vines have yellowed and gone to ground. Six more growing seasons will pass before she is eligible for parole.

Her conviction was for murder, after she took a life in 1990 at a time when her own was in ruins. She shot her husband nine times, earning a life sentence with all but 30 years suspended.

But now, stooped above the damp earth with a notebook in hand, she and 11 other members of Patuxent's master gardener class are cultivating life on a fine spring morning. Along winding paths in gardens which will soon be lush with flowers and vegetables, they weed and nurture, prune and pamper, while keeping an eye out for bugs and disease.

And it takes only one walk down the prison's long dim corridors, with their faint smell of disinfectant and their barred steel doors clanking shut, to realize what might attract an inmate to this patch of green in the sun. The gardening class is therapy, just as intended.

"I feel competent; I feel whole," says Rubin, 43, the sun in her eyes and nine years of prison behind her. "It has really changed my life. I was healing from the past, and I think I was ready for something new to take me into the future."

It is the sort of reaction Patuxent officials hoped for when they began master gardener classes four years ago on the grounds at Jessup, banking on the proven merits of "horticultural therapy" to help restore balance and calm to people who'd known far too much violence and turmoil.

Not that everyone was sold on the idea right away. Patuxent warden Archie Gee had visions of trees and bushes maturing into cover and camouflage for escapees. But that worry was easily addressed -- when trees reach 3 feet they go the Department of Natural Resources' seedling program -- and now Gee is a big a fan of the classes.

It fits in well with the overall mission at Patuxent, which focuses more on treating than warehousing its population. It is the state's only maximum-security prison that isn't part of the Division of Correction.

"Many come into Patuxent with substance abuse problems or suffering from physical or sexual abuse, or they had a long history of poor impulse controls or anger management," says Suzan Cozzolino, coordinator of Patuxent's horticultural program, which also runs classes in green gardening and floriculture. "Most of them have such a warped perception of what a human connection is, and I think they get a great opportunity [by gardening] to really appreciate and respect themselves and other human beings."

Other benefits

And, like one of the prison's strawberry plants, the program has put down runners and shoots in unexpected directions, sprouting other benefits as well.

"They do quite a bit in the way of giving back to the community," Jon Traunfeld, the state's master gardener coordinator, says of the inmates in the program. "They have done some landscape designs for community beautification projects in Baltimore. They raise tree seedlings for DNR. They have donated plants to nursing homes and schools."

Their finest hour may have come late last year, when Consumers Union selected Patuxent's master gardeners from among 150 candidates to conduct one of five regional bulb tests. The voluminous and detailed results being logged by Rubin -- size, health, hardiness, shape, color and about anything else you'd want to know about a bulb's bloomability -- will be published next fall in Consumer Reports magazine along with the results from similar tests in Iowa, Kansas, Michigan and Southern California. None of those sites is using prison gardeners.

`Something unique'

Bernie Deitrick, senior project leader for Consumers Union, says he looked at the Patuxent proposal, "and I thought, that's a wonderful thing to spend our money on, and so far they're doing a great job. It's definitely something unique."

But the program's biggest impact is felt one by one, among the inmates lucky enough to make it into the class. In a population of about 800, including around 80 women, maybe 35 apply each year. In four years, 32 have made it all the way through the 65 hours of classes and the 100-question exam to become certified master gardeners, with three more students on track to join them this spring.

Rubin is one of the new students about to take her final exam. So is John DiGiovanni, who has been incarcerated for the past four years after a conviction for conspiracy to murder.

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