The Oregonian: Portland State University helps Coffee Creek prison garden thrive
Author: Jillian Daley, Special to The Oregonian
Posted: November 15, 2012

Read the original story in The Oregonian here.

Coffee Creek women's prison inmate Michelle Long perches on a crate along a row of kale in the robust garden and instructs Portland State University seniors Sharon Bonn and Rachel Lee on how to harvest the leafy vegetable.  

"Take the outer leaves, and leave the inner, younger leaves," says Long, 46, of Eugene.  

The trio snips for a few minutes before Lee stops. 

"What are these?" Lee asks, showing Long a wilted green clipping. 

"Those are aphids," Long says, frowning. 

Team efforts like this last week by inmates and PSU faculty and students, along with nearly $200,000 in recent grants, have more than doubled the size of the garden growing on the Coffee Creek Correctional Facility's 108 acres in Wilsonville. 

PSU professor Debbie Rutt and Sherrie Barger, a leadership coach at Education Northwest, worked as volunteers in 2009 to revive the prison garden program, which has gradually grown from a scrubby 10,000-square-foot plot to 23,000 square feet of flourishing plant life.  

"It enhances the living conditions for the inmates because instead of just seeing dead grass they actually get to see things growing," said Robert Powell, Coffee Creek minimum security facility manager.  

In spring 2010, PSU students got involved. Rutt and Barger launched the Women's Prison Garden capstone project, one of the downtown Portland university's 240 capstones, which are interdisciplinary, community-based learning classes. This capstone aims to educate students about the criminal justice system and social issues though academic work and interactions with prisoners, which includes gardening. 

So far, 170 PSU students have labored with inmates in the prison garden. Some 40 inmates graduated from the annual organic gardening course this summer, which former PSU students led. Students develop curriculum for the summer course. 

Students help engage the community and create and maintain partnerships with groups such as Oregon Food Bank, which shares curriculum from its educational programs. 

Tending the tender greens affords students such as PSU senior Zarie Orest with hands-on skills such as how to fertilize plants with compost and use red wiggler worms to enrich soil.

Orest said the program provides inmates with educational opportunities that are not available in many other women's prisons. 

"I want more people to know about it," Orest says. "It's changing women." 

Long – incarcerated on identity theft, theft and perjury charges – is working on a proposal with three students for accessible, raised beds in the garden for women with physical disabilities. The project was her idea. The inmate says upon her release in six months, she plans to study grant writing. 

Julieta Duvall, 43, of Salem, wants to establish a worm breeding business when she leaves Coffee Creek next October because she is impressed with the cost of the red wigglers used in the garden. 

"Have you ever had a steak that's $30 per pound?" says Duvall, incarcerated on drug charges. 

The program spurred Duvall and other inmates to pursue agriculture or related fields, but its main purpose is to teach inmates how to cultivate a home garden and live healthier when they return to the community. 

The garden also provides the prison kitchen with fresh food,generating 9,047 pounds of produce from 2009 to 2011. More than 10percent of crops has been donated to the Wilsonville Community Center. This year, the students and inmates already have reaped nearly half of that three-year total: 4,100 pounds, and the gardeners have hundreds of pounds of kale, leeks and lettuce left to harvest, Rutt said. Summer gleanings included tomatoes, squash and peppers. Cosmos, marigolds and zinnias brighten the garden. 

Until recently, donations supported the gardening program at the 1,683-bed facility.  Last year, Kaiser Permanente awarded a $180,000, three-year grant to the Oregon Public Health Authority to create a sustainable prison horticulture program with environmentally sound practices such as irrigating with captured rainwater. Rutt, in addition to her PSU duties, serves as the Public Health Division's part-time garden coordinator for the grant. Barger, her fellow founder, continues to volunteer. 

Rutt received a $10,000 TogetherGreen fellowship in 2011,  given through a partnership of the National Audubon Society and Toyota to bolster the garden program. The grant helped expand the program's composting project, make more educational events possible at the prison and supported construction of a greenhouse, to be completed within a month.  

Other state prisons also house gardens, but university students and faculty are an added resource not many correctional facilities can tap. 

"We need them, and we're here for their education as well," said Laurene Brenner, acting spokeswoman for Coffee Creek.  

– Jillian Daley