Philson Warner, right, works with inmate and student Carlos Miranda in the hydroponics lab Warner set up at Rikers Island. (Credit: Jesse Winter Photography)

CORNELL (US)—Gardening might not seem like the most obvious way to pass the time at one of the world’s largest correctional facilities. But, for the last three years, hundreds of teen inmates at Rikers Island have taken part in the Hydroponics Learning Model (HLM) program offered through Cornell University Cooperative Extension.

Extension associate Philson Warner, who developed the program, oversees the Rikers Island effort, visiting the prison each quarter and passing through six security checkpoints each time, to check on the labs, provide teacher support, and interact with students.

“When we first proposed HLM, people thought that the students would just destroy the labs,” says Christine Schmidt, supervisor of social workers for New York City public schools. But over the past two years, Warner found the opposite to be true. “Instead they take pride in the vegetables, they care for them and nurture them,” he says.

Schmidt brings rehabilitative programs to Rikers Island, which houses some 17,000 inmates in 10 prisons across the East River from LaGuardia Airport. She first heard about Warner and his hydroponic program at a workshop several years ago. “I thought what a fabulous academic experience,” Schmidt says.

Convinced that the labs, with their heads of lettuce sprouting out of white tubes, would benefit inmate-students, she sold Warner on the idea of starting a program at the correctional facility. But Schmidt knew it would take effort to overcome budget woes, train teachers, and secure the right equipment to build the hydroponics labs.

“I knew it was going to be difficult,” Schmidt admits. “First off, everything on the list was contraband.” Glass fish tanks, for example, weren’t allowed, so Warner enlisted plastic ones. The metal chains supporting overhanging lights weren’t allowed either; instead, they had to make do with plastic ties.

Schmidt says teachers claim the soothing sounds of water, the greenery, and even the smell of produce have helped create a better environment to rehabilitate the inmates. “It is calming and healing and fosters nurturing feelings,” she adds.

In the Labs
At Horizon Academy, across the island, the bok choi grown by Bertha Kurmen’s class is nearly ready for harvest—just in time for a pre-holiday break celebration. Kurmen uses the program to teach a host of subjects. “I use it as a tool in all content areas,” she explains.

Since its small beginnings in 2007 with just three classrooms, the Rikers Island project now includes eight self-contained labs in the facility’s two high schools. Warner trained 15 educators who now use the labs to help inmates learn more about science, technology, agriculture, nutrition, and English vocabulary.

Not Just for Inmates
In six enormous tanks, 6,000 fish are being raised in a lab at the old Park West High School, part of a five-school campus on West 50th Street in Manhattan’s Hell Kitchen. Two stories above, dozens of fluorescent lights fuel the growth of an indoor hydroponics vegetable and herb garden.

These projects are part of a growing collaboration between Cornell University Cooperative Extension-New York City and schools. Beginning this past fall students and teachers have been learning to tend to the fish as part of the Living Environment curriculum.

Warner set up the programs over the summer. “The fish will be for eating,” he says, showing off tilapia of various sizes and colors. “This is a very versatile, hardy species that is relatively easy to grow with the right technology.” Warner expects the technology will help the school labs eventually produce 16,000 pounds of tilapia every nine months or so.

Much of the fish and vegetables raised already goes to the Food and Finance High School, one of the schools housed in the complex, and to their culinary arts program. “The culinary classes cooked a special meal for all the students, and over 800 sampled the food,” says Warner, who also runs an after-school hydroponics and aquaculture program for up to 50 students. “And most of them went back for seconds.”

The school is finalizing plans to open a small store at the high school to sell fish and produce to the public. Warner hopes to build a hydroponic/aquaculture greenhouse on top of the building by 2010.

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