Planting more than seeds at Women’s Prison in Swannanoa

Mackensy Lunsford

The grounds of the Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women are surprisingly gorgeous.

The Swannanoa Mountain range looms beyond the southern border of the campus, drawing attention from barbed wire looping over chain-link fencing.

Some of the 365 women who call this minimum-security facility home are working beyond the fence this morning, hands in the dirt, plucking spinach, driving posts and pulling weeds.

This is the Seasons of Grace Garden, created by inmate volunteers and Sally Reeske, who has been teaching horticulture at the women’s facility through Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College for three years.

Some of this produce will go to MANNA FoodBank, a regional food pantry. Some will go to the prison cafeteria. But all of it helps to grow a sense of responsibility and worth in the participating prison population.

Women qualify for the program with a record of good behavior. In return, they get fresh air and a crash course in real-world skills, such as growing food or selling produce at a market stall.

The garden also helps cultivate both practical skills and the fortitude to cope with the emotional toll of imprisonment, said Rob Phillips, a program supervisor and educational program coordinator at the prison.

“If you believe in grounding theory at all, it’s very good for a lot of these women. They come in very broken and depressed and down, and you can see them take part in this program — a lot of people have been tremendously helped by this program.”

The Citizen Times was asked not to interview the inmates, but was allowed to observe the work day, during which Warren Wilson College Farm managers drove a tractor through the wet spring Earth, plowing a new garden plot.

The offenders, after leaving the fenced prison grounds for the nearby plot, quickly appeared lighter, smiling and focused on the task at hand. They seemed unburdened, for a moment, of the mental load of incarceration.

One unnamed resident, quoted in a facility-approved press release said, “I’ve been living in a room for so long. I need the exercise, the sunshine, and the fresh air. (The garden) has been amazingly opening for me. It’s life. It has made me feel alive again.

The prison offers a separate state-funded, certificate-earning horticulture program through A-B Tech that teaches skills from growing vegetables to landscaping.

The class is part of an effort to help break the cycle of repeat incarceration by preparing offenders for a transition to self-reliance, said Susan Maney, a program supervisor.

“Rather than shoving them out the gate and saying ‘have a nice life,’ we provide services to give them the tools they need to make a more successful transition.”

Most of the offenders have been convicted of felonies, though some are on the grounds for misdemeanors, including DUIs.

Some are on post-release supervision, a sort of purgatory between incarceration and parole.

Many will re-enter civilian life, and perhaps the very community that put them here in the first place, in the coming months.

Those offenders benefit from programs like a “Getting it Right” class, which teaches skills like self-reflection through journaling, Maney said.

One accredited educational program, “Inside-Out,” teams up with Warren Wilson College, placing eight traditional WWC students in a prison classroom with eight qualifying offenders.

“It takes away a lot of the stigma of being incarcerated because these folks sit with traditional students, have a lot in common, and think, ‘Hey, I can be a student too,” Phillips said.

“I don’t have a big letter ‘I’ for incarceration on my chest. I can do the work, I can compete, I can get out of here with confidence and step onto a college campus just like anyone else.”

Shame can be debilitating, he said, and a barrier to better community reintegration.

Real rehabilitation is essential, since most of the women are here less than a year, Phillips said. “Do you want them as good neighbors or as continuing problems and a drag on the rest of the community?”

At the edge of the garden, Reeske, the horticulture teacher, doled out instructions to the women.

A row of spinach, planted specifically for MANNA Foodbank, was ready for harvest, but only the greenest, crispest leaves would make the cut.

Reeske said many of these offenders are rural, so farming is already in their blood.

The offenders gain no certificate from this garden program. Like Reeske, they’re volunteers.

The ability to enact any measure of positive change in the community is as restorative as the fresh air, she suggested. “A lot of people really appreciate the opportunity to give back to MANNA FoodBank.”

While about one-third of the food bank’s total inventory is fresh food, most of that is end-of-life produce from large grocery retailers, said Kara Irani, marketing and communications director for MANNA.

The fresh spinach from the Seasons of Grace Garden is key for MANNA’s pantry.

“It’s super-fresh, as fresh as you’re going to get from a farmers market,” she said. “And we can extend the life of that so much more and get it to more people because it has a longer shelf life. It’s vital for us.”

The pantry’s clients talk about how desperate they are for nutritious food. “It is the most important food that we put through our food flow,” Irani said.

Jodi Rhoden from Mountain Bizworks worked with Reeske to create an entrepreneurship program for the women in the garden program, helping them run a produce stall at last year’s Black Mountain Sourwood Festival.

Giving back to community is part of the mission statement the women in the garden program created with her help:

“The mission of Seasons of Grace Garden at Swannanoa Correctional Center for Women is to grow a foundation to build women’s self-esteem, creativity and resilience through growing our own food, to express appreciation to the community by offering the fruits of our labor, to cultivate connection and a wholesome, nutritious, healthy outlook and to develop agency and empowerment by starting and finishing a season.”

Starting and finishing a season is a particularly poignant notion for the women, Rhoden said.

Seasons of Grace Garden maintains that 90 percent of the offenders are trauma survivors.

Many of them are incarcerated because they’ve been caught in the crossfire of addiction, or crimes committed by a family member or work associate.

“For them, recognizing that this time of incarceration is a season for them in their lives, not the entire life cycle, is important,” Rhoden said. “They’re recognizing that they can start and complete a cycle of their lives here as inmates, and go on to create new seasons of their lives, equipped with new skills.”

The Seasons of Grace Garden at Swannanoa Correctional Center accepts volunteers. Call the organization’s volunteer coordinator at 828-259-6000 for more.