OUTDOORS + RECREATION

Inmates create state prison greenhouses that provide far-reaching benefits

Jun 4, 2024, 9:00 AM | Updated: 9:55 am

Two inmates working with plants in one of the state prison's nine greenhouses....

Two inmates at the Utah State Correctional Facility work in one of the nine greenhouses at the prisons, planting something in the greenhouse they have dubbed "The Sanctuary" on May 23, 2024. (Heather Peterson, KSL NewsRadio)

(Heather Peterson, KSL NewsRadio)

SALT LAKE CITY– The Utah Department of Corrections is fostering a horticulture program. It has allowed inmates to build nine prison greenhouses at the Utah State Correctional Facility. Those greenhouses provide plants for agencies across the state. They also help inmates develop life skills they can take with them after prison.

Building the Green Thumb Nursery Program from the ground up

In a sea of gray and tan at the state prison, the greenhouses at the back of the property provide a welcome site for many who live and work there. Todd Barszcz is the case manager behind The Green Thumb Nursery Program. He said they have built this from the ground up and is now flourishing.

“We figured it out on our own,” Barszcz said. “We did research on the Internet, (and) we bought books for building codes and things like that.”

He and the rest of the men in his program designed and constructed the greenhouses themselves. They also contstructed the growing tables that hold the plants, and all of the other infrastructure needed to support the plants’ development. On top of that, everything they use is designed be eco-friendly and conserve water.

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(Photo credit: Heather Peterson, KSL NewsRadio)

Helping partners across the state

Within these greenhouses are thousands of seeds, sprouts and flourishing plants that will one day be transplanted outside the prison’s walls. Their reach is vast. The Green Thumb Nursery Program grows plants for all kinds of reasons. One of those reasons is the restoration of native vegetation across the state. They partner with many Utah agencies and organizations. These include the Salt Lake City Public Lands Department to the Utah Department of Natural Resources. These partnerships grow what is needed, for a fraction of the cost.

“With us being a key player now within the state, they can get more for their money,” Barszcz said. “So your tax dollars that are going to fund these budgets for these places are being re-invested back into your public lands that you enjoy; they’re able to get a lot more for your money.”

Word of mouth about their program has been spreading rapidly. Barszcz said  people within the horticulture community have been speaking highly about their partnership with the state prison, and so he keeps getting phone calls for new partnerships and contracts. They even had to put some building projects on hold so they could fulfill the vast amount of orders for plants.

“Currently the grow outs we’re doing is about 150,000 plants to be ready to go out for the first part of July,” Barszsz said. “So, that means our daily goal is transplanting 4,640 per day.”

Providing inmates with life skills and perspective

While the program has been financially beneficial to agencies all across the state, it is also great for the inmates involved. Inmates selected to be part of this program go through classes and get hands-on training in horticulture.

“It’s the largest apprenticeship offered by the Office of Apprenticeship. It makes [them] nationally recognized as a horticulturists,” Barszcz said. “6,500 hours, and it covers everything in the horticulture industry. Everything. Once they earn it, it is theirs for life and they can go anywhere in the United States and it’s acknowledged.”

However, the benefits for inmates extend past the life skills they acquire. Cody Nielsen, who is a serving a life sentence at the prison, will never be able to use his newfound talents in the outside world. However, he still finds meaning in his work.

Finding purpose and giving back

“It’s given me a whole different perspective on life,” Nielsen said. “It’s made me realize even though I am in prison for life, there’s still a lot of good you can still do as a person and give back and help people.”

One of the many ways they do that is through providing pumpkins each year for students with special needs at Jordan Valley and Kauri Sue Hamilton schools. Nielsen leads the program and he said he finds that experience to be incredibly rewarding.

Providing nature-based therapy

The Green Thumb Nursery Program is not just about the job skills though. Many inmates find working in the greenhouses to provide a mental health benefit. One of the greenhouses is dubbed “The Sanctuary.” It provides nature-based therapy, with a waterfall, benches and greenery for those who live and work on the prison grounds. 

“That’s kind of what we want to do is create an area that people have access to, that’s a nature-based therapy philosophy, but also educational as well,” Barszcz said.

Barszcz said they are hoping to provide an even larger area for a mental health escape in the future. One of their upcoming projects is planting a botanical garden right outside The Sanctuary.

“It’s the freedom, it’s calming (and) it’s very relaxing” Nielsen said. “You’re not in prison when you’re here.”

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Inmates create state prison greenhouses that provide far-reaching benefits