London Correctional grows garden and recycling programs

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Messenger photos by Kristy Zurbrick
More than 8,400 pounds of produce from a garden at London Correctional Institution (LoCI) have been donated to non-profit organizations in Clark and Madison counties. With oversight from LoCI staff, approximately 12 offenders have tended the garden from seed to harvest.

(Posted Oct. 11, 2022)

By Kristy Zurbrick, Madison Editor

There’s something about planting a seed and nurturing it as it grows. Actually, there are a whole lot of somethings, as offenders at London Correctional Institution (LoCI) have discovered over the past six months.

Approximately a dozen offenders have tended a garden covering about an eighth of an acre on the prison grounds. Rows of peppers, tomatoes, onions and carrots filled the space, along with watermelon, zucchini, pumpkins, and plenty more. To date, 8,400 pounds of produce from the garden have gone to Second Harvest Food Bank in Clark County and Lifepointe Family Center in Madison County.

“Ninety-nine percent of the produce from this garden has been donated through the efforts of the men who work here,” said Adam Conley, LoCI’s environmental specialist, a new position created earlier this year to oversee the prison’s garden, recycling facility, and sustainability and efficiency efforts.

Some of the offenders who work in the garden at London Correctional Institution look for ripe tomatoes on the vine.

The seed-to-finish garden project began in late April when the men started seeds in a grow room steps from the garden plot. As the seeds became plants, the team transplanted them into bigger pots, then eventually transferred the plants to the plot. From that point forward, they put in 30 hours per week watering, weeding, controlling pests and disease, and harvesting.

Offender Marcus Fox likes the feeling of accomplishment that comes with gardening and knowing he is helping others through the produce donations. He also likes feeling connected to nature.

“It feels good to put your hands in the dirt. It’s almost like being a kid again, playing in the dirt,” he said.

The mental health benefits of working in a garden are many, said Tess Rowe, a nurse in LoCI’s mental health department. She encouraged several of the offenders assigned to her to get involved in the garden as a form of therapy.

“It gives them quiet time to work out their thoughts away from the hustle and bustle of the compound where they have very little time alone,” Rowe said.
Offender Larry Armacost can attest to those benefits.

“Working out here is very relaxing on the mind. It has a calming effect. I wake up every day looking forward to it,” he said.

London Correctional Institution offenders (from left) Marcus Fox, Lawrence Colburn, Larry Armacost and Douglas Pinkerman show off one of the pumpkins they nurtured for a statewide biggest-pumpkin contest. The group is sending two pumpkins to the contest; the weigh-in is scheduled for Oct. 17 at Mansfield Correctional. Also pictured is Terry Rowe (far right), a nurse in the prison’s mental health department. Offenders assigned to Rowe who work in the prison’s garden report positive mental health benefits from the outdoor therapy.

Offender Douglas Pinkerman said his mental state is much improved since getting involved in the garden. He’s lost weight, too, aiding his physical health. The big bonus, he said: “It gives you ambition.”

The garden is a learning opportunity, as well. Some of the offenders involved in the program came into it with some know-how; others did not. Offender Lindsey Williams was among those with previous experience. While in prison, he has attained master certification through the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association. He appreciates everything about the gardening process.

“You get to see the cycle of life–from seed to vegetable to harvesting the seed from the vegetable for next year’s garden,” he said.

Williams and others with gardening experience have helped to teach the crew. Along the way, they have picked up new knowledge themselves. The crew has learned everything from how to hand-pollinate vine crops to how to fertilize and control pests and disease using organic practices.

While this isn’t the first year LoCI has had a garden–the program started in 2016–it is the garden’s first year back after about a three-year hiatus.

“We went smaller than they had done in years past, just to test the waters and see how the men reacted,” Conley said. “They really took to it and ran with it.”

Buoyed by that enthusiasm, Conley said plans are in the works to increase the garden’s size by three-fold or four-fold next year. Organizers also are looking at keeping bee hives to help with pollination, as well as delving into aquaponics, an indoor system combining fish and veggies that would allow for garden work year-round.

The garden is one piece of the bigger picture when it comes to LoCI’s focus on sustainability, environmentalism, efficiency and connection with the community. The prison’s recycling facility is another piece.

“Every day, it’s an ongoing battle to limit the waste we produce. The institution is like a small city,” said LoCI Warden Jenny Hildebrand.

Between July 2021 and July 2022, LoCI recycled 140,000 pounds of waste, reducing the number of trash pickups from three per week to two per week.

With an offender population of approximately 1,250, the prison goes through a lot of products which can create a lot of waste. Recycling goes a long way toward offsetting trash volumes. Between July 2021 and July 2022, LoCI recycled approximately 140,000 pounds of waste, reducing the number of trash pickups from three per week to two per week.

The on-site recycling facility started simply, processing cardboard only. Now, the facility recycles aluminum and steel cans, paper products, and plastics, in addition to the cardboard. Offenders man the facility, sorting and baling materials each morning.

“It’s a simple job,” said offender Donnie Van Cleve. “It’s rewarding to help the environment.”

LoCI sells the recycled material on the open market. Currently, most of it is going to Sims Bros. Recycling in Marion County. Fifty percent of the revenue goes to the central fund of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. The other 50 percent stays at LoCI. Conley said he uses the money to upgrade equipment and buy supplies for the recycling operation.

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