It was two years ago when Chris Swan received a phone call from an old graduate-school friend on the west coast who heard Maryland prison officials were looking for scientists to collaborate on environmental projects. Since then, in just a short amount of time, vacant lots in Baltimore’s Harlem Park neighborhood are beginning to green, wildflower plots and vegetable gardens are springing up at the Maryland Correctional Institute for Women (MCIW), and the Portrait Garden project has been launched.
Swan, an associate professor of geography and environmental systems, is leading the Maryland Green Prisons Initiative, which was launched in partnership with the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, Baltimore Office of Sustainability and other local collaborators. As part of the program, Swan works with inmates at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore to spruce up and test wildflowers and grasses in eight vacant West Baltimore lots. By enlisting their help, Swan is able to teach the inmates about gardening and horticulture.
“We decided to give them green collar skills in an effort to train them so when they leave, they have something they can articulate to an employer. They can say they have tangible skills that can be marketable,” Swan says.
Anna Johnson, a doctoral student in geography and environmental systems, has been working with inmates at MCIW in Jessup to study diverse groups of native species to understand how different plants interact with weeds in the vacant lots to improve the urban environment. She has also worked with the inmates to cultivate vegetable gardens at MCIW.
“I love thinking about how research can benefit cities. I think too often, we work in academia and we just talk with other academics when you could really be out showing people how problems are solved,” Johnson says. “People don’t often get to see what science looks like as it progresses.”
The Green Prisons Initiative not only benefits the community and helps inmates learn, but it embodies two principles that UMBC champions: civic engagement and interdisciplinarity. Since the initiative began, Lynn Cazabon, an associate professor of visual arts, launched what is called the Portrait Garden. She decided to work with MCIW inmates to make portraits, but not in the traditional sense. She asked the women to choose perennial plants that best represent them and they were planted last fall at the prison. Cazabon conducted interviews with the women about their choice of perennials and their experiences gardening. The final version of the Portrait Garden will include photographs of the perennials, excerpts of the audio interviews with the inmates and an exhibition at MCIW with Cazabon’s photos and drawings from the women she is working with.
“Part of my artistic process is to learn through the process of making my art. I’m learning about who is in prison, and I’m surprised about how diverse, intelligent and thoughtful the women are,” Cazabon says. “It’s been rewarding that I’ve been able to give them these gardens and plants. We’ve done it together. I feel like I’m improving their lives on some level.”
The Green Prisons Initiative continues to grow and is poised to make a lasting and powerful impact across the state.
“People make mistakes, they make bad mistakes, and sometimes they do it repeatedly,” Swan observes. “But at the same time, while paying the price for those mistakes, doing something productive for other people might be one way to spend that time.”
For prior coverage of the Maryland Green Prisons Initiative, click below:
Green Future: Plotting a New Course (UMBC Magazine)
Inmate Grasses and Wildflowers Bloom in Vacant Baltimore Lots(DPSCS