One recent day in a Jessup greenhouse, a 55-year-old Baltimore man named Andre wheeled a bucket from the aloes and cactuses to the poinsettias and spider plants to ensure each got watered.
Six men tended the facility’s plants and trees, each being paid minimum wage. But the work was more than a job. The men also were getting so-called horticulture therapy. That’s gardening as a kind of mental health care, and it’s increasingly being deployed in corrections systems around the country.
Andre and the others are patients at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital, a state-run mental facility for those sent by the courts for treatment rather than to jail or prison for some offense.
“It relaxes your mind,” said Andre, whom The Baltimore Sun is identifying only by his first name to protect his privacy. “I get paid, but I’d do this even if I didn’t get paid.”
Research shows that just being around plants can make people feel good, and mental health providers now believe working with greenery specifically offers benefits such as stress relief, anxiety reduction and aggression control. There is growing evidence that learning to care for plants also can boost self-esteem while providing work experience.
Perkins isn’t a prison; rather it’s a hospital run by the Maryland Department of Health. It offers mental evaluations to assess detainees’ fitness for trial or treatment after they are found not criminally responsible, the state’s version of an insanity defense. The hospital has gotten some of the state’s toughest cases. Jarrod Ramos was evaluated there before he pleaded guilty to charges related to the mass shooting at the Capital Gazette. Over the years, there have been assaults on staff and other patients.
Patients are evaluated for their safety risk before they can work in the greenhouse, and don’t usually get such an assignment right away. Andre had been at Perkins for nine years before he got the job, which is a six-month stint.
The average stay at Perkins is five years, and officials hope the program will prompt some to seek positions in greenhouses or in landscaping when they are discharged. They do not track the former patient employment, but recidivism is low, and Marian Fogan, Perkins’ CEO, believes the work programs are helping.
Some participants might not ever tend to plants as a professional, but they still might benefit from seeing the plants thrive under their care, said Chandra Wiggins, work adjustment supervisor at Perkins, who also oversees other jobs in the laundry, library, maintenance department, cafe, kitchen and elsewhere.
The greenhouse has been operating for more than a decade and has become one of the most popular jobs, she said. In warmer months, the patients also tend to an outside garden where they grow corn and tomatoes and other crops.
“It gives them a sense of self-worth,” Wiggins said. “They like to see the plants growing.”
Others who run programs say they see similar improvement among participants. One of the nation’s largest correctional horticulture therapy programs is at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex.
The GreenHouse program is run through a partnership with the Horticulture Society of New York and serves 500 detainees and inmates through five gardens with 160 raised beds. They grow flowers and herbs and about 400 pounds of organic fruit and vegetables a year.
It began as a job training program in 1986, but instructors noticed mood changes in the workers, said Hilda M. Krus, GreenHouse’s director. In 2003, officials brought on trained horticulture therapists and expanded the number and types of people involved to include those with diagnosed mental health issues and younger people.
“It was pretty clear right away that people came back from the garden in a different mood with different behaviors,” Krus said. “More and more we noticed the therapeutic potential.”
She said research, including data from the Rikers program, conducted in the past decade or so has begun to back up what they have witnessed. The plants were a vehicle for a range of positive feelings and improved behaviors, even if the participants did not intend to pursue a career in gardening.
The officials also found that the therapy worked on a range of participants, from those who needed heavy physical work to reduce aggression to those who benefited from seeing plants thrive to boost their self-esteem and overcome the stigma of mental illness or incarceration. Parents separated from children benefited from the caretaker role. And even inmates who were serving long sentences and often felt hopeless could find a sense of control and purpose, Krus said.
“It fits in uniquely in prisons because there is something for everybody,” she said. “Plants respond to everyone’s care.”
Among those who have worked in the Rikers program, recidivism dropped by 40 percent. Krus believes participants are more productive members of society once they leave the correctional system, and that contributes to community safety.
Krus said many correctional facilities already have gardens for job training. But as officials recognize the high levels of mental illness and substance use disorders among those in correctional facilities, more will expand and add therapists to help inmates achieve specific mental health goals.
Horticulture therapy is gaining traction beyond prisons and mental hospitals as well. Therapists are using it in their practices to treat depression and other disorders. The American Horticultural Therapy Association reports there are now nine university programs to train therapists — the nearest at Temple University and Delaware Valley University in Pennsylvania.
Therapists in Baltimore are using horticulture to help veterans.
Nan McKay, the farm manager for the nonprofit Therapeutic Alternatives of Maryland, said she came from Canada 20 years ago to work in horticulture therapy as it was starting to gain more attention in the United States.
The program seemed well suited to those who had been in combat and suffered post-traumatic stress disorders and those who had trouble finding a purpose back home. Many veterans also needed the camaraderie that came from working closely with others. The Veterans Administration agreed and two years ago began providing stipends for participants and transportation to a garden in Cromwell Valley Park just north of Baltimore.
“Growing food is honorable,” McKay said. “And they can take ownership in the results.”
Those in the Perkins program say they enjoy it and could see parlaying new skills into a job.
Andre had worked in home improvement before he came to Perkins and said he could see himself doing more landscaping jobs. More immediately, he said he used the money he earned in the greenhouse to help pay off old child support debt.
Brian, a 42-year-old Glen Burnie man at Perkins for three years, said he could confidently walk into a Home Depot or Ace and apply for a job in the gardening section.
Scott, a 41-year-old Baltimore County man who just finished his greenhouse rotation and might soon leave Perkins, said he wasn’t sure what the training would lead to beyond caring for plants in his own home. His mental illness had kept him from working before he was sent to Perkins, and the sense of accomplishment from gardening was new for him.
“It was rewarding to see the plants grow,” Scott said.