Growing a life after incarceration

Part of the outdoor courtyard at San Francisco’s Juvenile Hall has been turned into a garden.

Three boys on a recent Monday sat at a picnic table underneath barbed wire to prepare basil and spinach pesto with oregano-roasted tomato garnish. Two boys in jail garb made lavender sachets, while another transplanted Chrysanthemums.

When they head inside, the kids put their thoughts in poetry and writing.

“I want to see something beautiful come from this ugly situation,” one boy, 16, wrote. “I love to see florescent, vibrant colors somewhere among all this white, gray and faded purple that fills our hours. I love to smell something fresh and good instead of chemicals and body odor.”

What began with a handful of seeds inside the detention-center classroom of a pair of San Francisco Unified School District teachers has become 16 plant beds, a fresh harvest every week and — with any luck — valuable life experience for youth offenders.

On an average day, about 50 to 90 teens go to school inside The City’s Juvenile Hall. While the usual stay is about three months, some kids find themselves incarcerated for periods of one to two years, according to Juvenile Justice Center teachers.

“They told us that what they felt they needed here was a space where they could care for living things,” said Megan Mercurio, an English teacher who started the program in 2010 with special education teacher Constance Walker.

While there are no numbers to show whether the Juvenile Justice Garden Project lowers the detention center’s recidivism rate, the head of Juvenile Hall said each program helps prevent kids from returning.

“The vast majority of kids that come through our doors don’t come back,” said Luis Recinos, director of the Juvenile Justice Center. “I believe that the programs that we are implementing… have an effect on recidivism and keep the kids from coming back.”

The teachers hope that the kids, aged 12 to 18, learn empathy, responsibility and alternatives to violence.

The garden began with a classroom of girls writing about, and caring for, a few plants. Then in late 2013, the garden moved into the outer courtyard where there’s space for planting, growing, harvesting and then preparing food. The move also meant boys were able to participate.

With the help of youth offenders at The City’s Log Cabin Ranch, a detention center for repeat offenders in the Santa Cruz Mountains, the courtyard was outfitted with handmade picnic tables and garden beds. The Log Cabin Ranch boys built and installed them at Juvenile Hall with guidance from the San Francisco Conservation Corps.

Staff and volunteers at Juvenile Hall also do their part to help. Mercurio and Walker on a recent Monday were assisted by the librarian Rachel Kinnon, a paid gardener named Laura McDonnell and Lori Caldwell, a professional gardening consultant who agreed to help out.

“It’s so well constructed, which is exactly what these kids need,” said Heidi Anderson, a spokesperson for SFUSD who visited the garden. “What these kids have experienced before here is a lot of chaos in their lives.”

One boy at the garden reaffirmed that.

“This is nice,” he said. “My side of San Francisco is…sketchy, no flowers. Everything is dead.”

The garden has also drawn praise from Chief Juvenile Probation Officer Allen Nance, whose department has approved an expansion of the garden to the other side of the courtyard.

“I could not be more thrilled at the opportunity to provide detained youths with the ability to be actively engaged with a gardening experience that is educational, emotionally soothing, and a healthy alternative to the structured routines of daily life in Juvenile Hall,” Nance said in an email.

The expansion means more plant beds built and installed by Log Cabin Ranch boys on the other end of the courtyard along a hillside. A landscaper, Dirty Hoes Landscaping, has already mapped out a design for the area, free of cost.

But Mercurio and Walker don’t plan to stop there.

The teachers are in charge of their own funding through a fiscal sponsor and were awarded grants from funders, including the TomKat Foundation, to sustain the program thus far. The garden costs about $1,000 to $2,000 a month, Mercurio said. They’re looking for some $50,000 more in the future.

Those funds would cover costs for a greenhouse, an outdoor kitchen and a Juvenile Justice Center farmer’s market, among other things. Mercurio and Walker also hope to include more students in the future.

Anderson, the school district’s spokesperson, said the teenagers in Juvenile Hall are gaining experience with the garden program they usually wouldn’t get at middle and high schools in The City.

“Most of our school gardens are at elementary level,” said Anderson. She hopes SFUSD will expand its ecoliteracy program to include funding for youth at Juvenile Hall, who are still considered students of the school district.

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