The installation of a new greenhouse at the Newfoundland and Labrador Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville means a horticultural therapy program that started there last year can move into its second season.
The program offers inmates access to an outdoor area within the compound and lessons on how to grow plants as part of therapy sessions meant to improve their mental wellness.
For inmate Irene Hutchings, the program has been a welcome change to her daily life behind bars.
“It was keeping my mind busy and occupied.… I’d get outside breathing fresh air, mingling with other inmates,” she said.
“[Before] I didn’t even know what a tree or a plant [was], or anything about growing. I don’t have a green thumb.”
While the facility already had a greenhouse last year, that structure didn’t last through the winter. The new greenhouse, donated by Sun Valley Greenhouses, is about three times as big, offering ample space for both plants and therapy sessions.
Those are run by non-profit organization Stella’s Circle, which supports women who have been involved in the criminal justice system, offering community-based counselling and post-release support, but also therapy inside the prison — including horticultural therapy.
Program workers bill the therapy as a way to improve mental, physical and social health.
“People have different ways of learning, different ways of kind of receiving therapy. And horticulture is a really kind of cool, unique way to offer that,” said Amy Sheppard, a social worker with Stella’s Circle.
“It’s really great for people with mental health issues, addictions issues.”
In the past, the province’s prisons, including the Clarenville facility, have repeatedly come under scrutiny for reports of insufficient mental health support, and staffing shortages remain a provincewide problem.
While “lots of really good stuff happens” in Clarenville, said Sheppard, that doesn’t change the nature of being in a prison environment and what that means, including little opportunity to spend time outdoors — yet that’s what the program aims to improve.
Inmates who participated in it last year reported having “blossomed,” Sheppard said with a laugh, adding that it helped with their mindfulness and empathy skills.
“Women just talking about how at peace they felt, how calm they felt, how it’s helped them being able to kind of tap into a piece of themselves they didn’t know that was there,” said Sheppard.
“They can nurture, they can grow, they watch things happen. And just how that really helps them kind of feel better mentally and physically. It’s really like a holistic sort of event.”
Therapy sessions include seed germination, plant care and food cultivation, but also offer creative elements, such as crafting with dried flowers.
Staff at Stella’s Circle is working to put together a teaching module in partnership with staff at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary in St. John’s, which houses the Phoenix Garden project.
Having worked there before transferring to Clarenville, Angela Barrett, assistant superintendent at the facility in Clarenville, already knew about the positive effects of horticulture therapy when Stella’s Circle approached her about the project.
She was on board right away.
“I was very excited and flattered that they even offered to bring it here,” said Barrett.
She said the program has received positive feedback from the inmates in Clarenville, who noticed its benefits for their mental health.
“Being locked in in a one-range facility, day in, day out, 24 hours a day,” said Barrett. “Psychologically, it helps them, gives them a sense of purpose and that they’re actually accomplishing something.”
That’s why, she said, staff also added chickens to the facility, which are cared for by the inmates, who feed the animals, talk to them and clean out their coop.
“Everybody loves the chickens. The workers like the chickens, the inmates like the chickens, and it keeps them calm,” said Barrett.
“They like to come out and interact with the animals, and it really benefits them because in turn, when they go back inside, they’re happy. And they’re not dwelling on why they’re here and the things that they’ve done.”
With the new greenhouse installed, she said, the goal is to expand the horticultural therapy program, adding some standing boxes to grow vegetables in the coming year.
For Hutchings, that means she can look forward to more opportunities to be outside — which she said helps her deal with her mental illness.
“It clears my head. I’m able to think, I’m able to learn.… Because when you suffer from bad mental illness, being locked in a lot is not helping,” she said.
“That’s what I really liked. I like learning. Never too old to learn. I’m after learning a lot here.”
Hutchings and her fellow inmates will now get a chance to pick a name for the gardening project, just like prisoners at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary did.
Once some vegetables are growing in the greenhouse, the prison will hold a ceremony to officially launch the project.
Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador