Jessica Jenkins smiles as she shakes dirt from the roots of a recently-picked radish, the soil falling on her orange and white sneakers.

“I can’t wait to go home and tell my parents everything I’ve learned,” the 26-year-old said, smiling. “(My mom) has a bunch of fruits — strawberries, blueberries, all kinds of stuff — and now I can tell her exactly what the pH of the soil should be and all that.”

In any other situation, Jenkins’ words would not seem out of the ordinary; they could have been spoken by any 20-something who was returning from a college class or work seminar or speaker session.

But Jenkins and her fellow gardeners were in a unique spot, surrounded by several fences laden with barbed wire and guards watching their every move. They are inmates at the Gwinnett County Jail, picking vegetables for the jail’s Thanksgiving meal.

Started in 2016 after the Gwinnett recycling center closed, which created a need for a new work detail for the female inmates, a staff member suggested the idea of a jail garden, something Sheriff Butch Conway readily approved.

In addition to meeting the work need, the jail’s Fresh Start Garden, which was built using recycled and repurposed materials and donated plants, helps “inmates return to society as better people than when they came in,” said sheriff’s office spokeswoman Shannon Volkodav.

“We do that with our GED classes, numerous support classes, the Jail Dogs program, the Gwinnett Re-entry Intervention Program, this garden program,” Volkodav said. “Participating in a program such as (Fresh Start), for the inmates, is a form of therapy. When we first started (the garden), we called it the November's garden, because it was outside pod ‘N,’ or November. But in the years since, it’s changed to Fresh Start Garden, which I love because it can be a fresh start for the inmates — it’s giving them the opportunity for a fresh start, if they want to take it.”

Not only is the garden providing the female inmates, who are deemed “low-level offenders,” meaning they’re behind bars for non-violent drug offenses or minor probation violations, a fresh start, but for some, especially those who may have never thought about post-secondary education, the garden gives them a start, period.

“Usually about once a month, sometimes twice, the (University of Georgia) Extension Agent will show up and he’ll talk to the girls and say, ‘Make sure your pH is right,’ and he’ll instruct them on how to keep the soil healthy,” said Deputy James Wilson, who supervises the jail garden work detail. “We’re also partnered with (Gwinnett Technical College) and have had a professor come and talk about the soil and horticulture and (career options).”

The goal of the jail’s garden program is two-fold, Wilson said.

“I try to instruct (the inmates) on how to grow and how to take care of the soil, because a lot of them will come in and go, ‘I have a black thumb; I can’t grow anything,’” he said. “Then they realize it’s not about growing the plant, but about taking care of the soil. When you do that, your plants will grow, and then you (can start) watching the plants to see, ‘does this have disease, is there anything bothering the plants that’s preventing them from growing.’”

Once the women are successful with that, Wilson said he turns to the self-esteem aspect of the garden.

“I try to reinforce this all the time: just because you’re here in jail, that does not define who you are,” Wilson said. “We want to give you a skill, give you something that can actually give you a fresh start at life when you get out. I (garden) at home myself for therapy, so I tell them, ‘get into the dirt, talk to the plants — be positive.’ And I have some inmates who just come out and do their thing (because of) that.”

Though it would be nearly impossible for the jail to keep track of all of its released inmates — 91 women have worked in the garden already this year, Wilson said — studies have shown that jail gardens, which can be found across the country, from Rikers Island to California’s Solano and San Quentin State Prisons, are forces of good.

A 2016 thesis published by an Arcadia University graduate student, titled “Landscaping in Lockup: The Effects of Gardening Programs on Prison Inmates,” found that the jail garden programs studied “were shown to increase self-efficacy and self-worth for inmates, decrease anxiety and depression symptoms in inmates and reduce recidivism rates for participants when compared with the general prison population.”

But Annie Ward, a 38-year-old mother of two who has been incarcerated since June, though is expected to be released on Dec. 23, could have told you that.

“It makes you feel so good knowing that you can do this, and that you’re not nothing, that you can actually plant and grow something this amazing,” she said. “It’s beautiful what we’ve done, and there’s no drama, no loudness, nothing (negative) allowed.

“When it’s all said and done, it will be 95 days (that I’m in here). But I’m thankful to be in this jail — and I haven’t been to many — because the majority don’t have something like this. Jail is a revolving door for a lot of people, but a lot of those people didn’t get to do the garden or any of that stuff. I think if they had gotten to, they wouldn’t be back in here, because this is (true) rehabilitation.”

Stay Informed

Isabel is a crime and health reporter for the Gwinnett Daily Post. She graduated from Emory University in 2016 with a B.A. in international studies. She is originally from the Boston area.