Prison time should be used for agricultural education
Published: Monday, December 5, 2011
Updated: Tuesday, December 6, 2011 00:12
America has two major problems: a prison population that is out of control and an intense food security issue. I'll introduce each one individually.
First, America has more prisoners than farmers: 1.9 farmers to 2.1 million inmates. It's a small gap, but it's only getting wider. Part of this has to do with the fact that prisons are little more than time-outs. Prisoners are not leaving jail as reformed citizens. Rather, most criminals return to prison within only a few years.
Meanwhile, our food transportation systems are being stretched thin, our food is all around unhealthy (pizza is not a vegetable) and if anything happens to the oil supply, there won't be any trucks to bring us food from the Midwest. When I was first introduced to these problems, wheels started turning in my head. Why don't we put prisoners to work growing some organic vegetables?
One of the problems with our prisons is the "time-out" philosophy. Few prisons in the United States focus on rehabilitation. And politicians who claim to be "tough on crime" are only exacerbating the problem.
The reason is that the best solutions are often the most counter-intuitive. For example, Norway has the world's least brutal prison system as well as a recidivism rate only one third of the United States' rate.
Prisoners in Norway can look forward to a sound studio, a climbing wall, a jogging track and a two-story house where families can visit and stay the night. The house even has a kitchen – with knives. Stories of being lenient on crime would be unheard of in America. After all, this is the land of the free, but abuse that freedom and your fellow freedom lovers will toss your ass in jail. Then again, your food choices aren't so free. They're limited by cost. Cheap foods are often the unhealthiest, leading to epidemic rates of weight gain and diabetes. Food stores such as Whole Foods or Trader Joes often supply better options than mass-produced frozen pizzas or genetically altered chicken eggs, but are expensive. Perhaps we should learn a lesson from the Norwegian prison system and concentrate on rehabilitation, rather than retribution. – and then one-up them. What if we started gardening projects in prisons?
Prisons could be making enough food to supply themselves and perhaps even make a surplus to export to their own communities back home (after all, the vast majority of prisoners come from low-income areas where healthy food is virtually absent). In addition to helping out their community while serving a jail sentence, prisoners would learn valuable skills that don't have to do with shiv-sharpening. It should come as no surprise that recidivism is kept so high because ex-cons don't have a consortium of marketable skills, so they revert to crime.
Imagine the skills that would be produced. Low-income families would not only have healthy foods to eat, but small farmer's markets could pop up in places like the Bronx, Hartford, or even Bridgeport. Vacant lots and rundown building could be rebuilt as urban Edens.
I'm writing this article for two reasons: first, I think it's an excellent way to kill two birds with one stone; second, I'd like to inspire you to think differently. Find solutions that cover combinations of problems. See what they have in common, and create something new! Sure there's problems to work out, but the potential is worth discovering. As a culture, we're so used to thinking of problems in vacuum-sealed boxes with no overlap. But really, everything is connected. Anthony Weston, philosopher and author of "How to Re-Imagine the World" writes, "Systemic problems trace back in the end to worldviews. But worldviews themselves are in flux and flow. Our most creative opportunity of all may be to reshape those worldviews themselves. New ideas can change everything." So the next time you think of a problem, try accessing your creativity. You might surprise yourself.