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Garden within walls of Utah prison gives inmates unique chance to grow

Posted at 7:09 AM, Jul 01, 2024

SALT LAKE CITY — At the Utah State Correctional Facility, within the walls of confinement is a rare form of freedom...a vegetable garden.

“You name it, we have tomatoes, peppers, onion, garlic, kale. Kohlrabi, everything you see at the store plus more,” explained Todd Barszcz, the case manager for the prison’s program reentry program.

Cody Neilson, who is serving a life sentence, is one of the 32 prisoners who spends up to six hours a day tending to the plants growing within the walls.

“It’s freedom,” Neilson said. “When you're here, you're not in prison.”

The unique opportunity is part of the prison’s horticulture program that allows certain inmates to work while incarcerated.

“I will check them on our computer system, I’ll look to see when their last write-ups were," Barszcz said. "You have to behave not only here, but back on your housing unit.”

The food grown is used in a different program for culinary arts at the prison, helping supply fresh produce.

“We grow specifically for them,” Barszcz explained. “So they're not using prepackaged food and stuff like that. We're able to provide them with fresh foods so they can get the most of the experience.”

To both those running the program and those participating, gardening is not only a privilege, it’s therapeutic.

“Coming out of max come to here I was diabetic, I was taking insulin, I was taking 11 meds a day," Neilson said. “I don't take nothing now.”

Inmates are paid a small amount for participating and can earn a certificate in the gardening industry but more importantly, it gives them a sense of purpose.

“It gives us something that we can give back to the public, you know, a little bit of, you know, we're sorry, but I'm here, but let me try and do the best I can and make the best of our situation," he said.

According to The Utah Department of Corrections, 96% of inmates at the prison are likely to be released at some point so experts say these “work and learn” opportunities are essential.

“When you start talking about doing rehabilitation and teaching and educating to reduce recidivism within the institution, so that when people are released, they are less likely to come back,” Barszcz said. “That's kind of why I'm so proud is because this represents the potential of what we can do as a correctional facility.”