The autumn breeze sweeps warm salt air over the triangular field as Carrolle Banfield bends to pluck a firm cucumber dangling through a chain-link fence. It has grown ripe and heavy, impervious to its decidedly non-pastoral location.
This vegetable is among the 20,000 pounds of cucumbers, tomatoes, pumpkins, cabbage and melons produced this year on Rikers Island, the nation's largest penal colony. It was planted, nurtured and coaxed into maturity by men locked up for robbery, gun possession and drug crimes.
Xavier Ford, 21, a Nassau County Community College student who landed on Rikers for illegal gun possession, said he's relished his early morning hours in the fields. “This was just like a dirt field,” Ford said, gesturing to a space a bit smaller than a soccer field behind a high fence. “We planted the seeds, watered it. We get to see the fruits of our labor, literally,” he said with a laugh.
Rikers Island, which is actually home to ten facilities under the jurisdiction of the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), houses 14,000 men and women like Ford, some awaiting criminal trial and some serving sentences of less than a year. More than 100,000 people pass through this outpost on the East River each year. Almost without exception they are poor and black or Latino, arriving from the New York neighborhoods where crime is not a memory, drug dealing is a familiar career choice and the simple pleasures of watching a seedling sprout are as foreign as grange halls and hayseeds.
Banfield, 54, director of the farm and horticulture project on Rikers, wants to change that. A career DOC caseworker with a green thumb, Banfield reintroduced the farm program on the island in 2002 after it had been dormant for several years.
In the 1970s and 80s farming flourished on Rikers. Inmates worked more than 12 acres of land, producing nearly 100,000 pounds of vegetables that found their way to the institution's kitchens. But as the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s filled the island’s jails, the construction of new dormitories swallowed farming land. The program petered out in the 1990s and was defunct by 2000, said John Ameroso, a Cornell Cooperative Extension educator and director of its Urban Agriculture and Markets division, who worked with the Rikers farm in its heyday.
While the Horticulture Society of New York runs a successful garden and greenhouse on the island and has received considerable media attention, the DOC-managed farm program has shallower roots.
In collaboration with the facilities' kitchens and education staff, Banfield aims to make it grow. The goal is to provide outdoor therapy, train participants for jobs and contribute healthy food to inmates' diets, she said. “My dream is to see every guy who passes through [Rikers] get some piece of this and make it something positive,” Banfield said. “It's therapeutic for them. They get taken away from all the madness.”
The farm program’s existence is tenuous. Its eight fields, scattered among unused lots on the island, amount to a total of only two acres. There's no promise they will be available from year to year, as security concerns and building plans take priority, Banfield said. Nor does the program have a dedicated line in the DOC budget. Money for seeds and staff to guard the inmates at work comes from the education and discharge planning divisions.
“It's piecemeal,” said Ameroso, who lends technical assistance to Banfield. “They could do more. I know what was out there once. I see potential.”
This year Banfield succeeded in changing where the program falls in the DOC organization. It moved from a work activity, like making license plates, to being part of the vocational and education division. She hopes the move will secure steady funding and a stable future.
“My dream in five years is that we have all the vacant land around Rikers and that it is functioning independently, that it’s no question mark – ‘Is it here? Will it be here?’” Banfield said.
Earlier this fall, inmate farmers harvested the last of the tomatoes, cantaloupes and pumpkins and covered the fields with compost made from cafeteria scraps. They head to an indoor classroom for the winter, where they will learn basic biology by preserving and germinating seeds. Visiting lecturers are scheduled to teach new growing techniques.
While the patchwork of fields sleep through the cold and windy island winter, inmates will experiment with hydroponics, a method of growing plants in water, Banfield said. Hydroponics allows for agriculture in less hospitable climes and requires far less space than planting in dirt, according to Ameroso.
DOC Deputy Commissioner Kathleen Coughlin, who oversees the farm program, said it's an inspiration and invaluable for developing skills inmates can translate into real jobs upon release. But she provided no firm commitments about its future, funding or acreage.
“People who have been tough guys, it's kind of amazing how these nurturing characteristics can be brought out in them,” she said. “And if we can connect them to work, we can change their entire trajectory when they get out. You can change a life.”
Coughlin's division of discharge planning tries to link inmate farmers to gardening and horticulture jobs, in conjunction with the Horticultural Society's more established program.
“This is a good program. I get to learn how to garden, get to go outside,” said 26 year-old Juan Concepcion, who is serving an eight-month sentence for possession of cocaine. “It feels like you really accomplish something.”
Working on the farm reminds him of happier times in his aunt's garden in Jersey City, he said as he prepared a harvested field for winter one recent morning. “It takes away the feeling that you're incarcerated.”
Like next summer’s rainfall, the future of the Rikers farm is far from certain. But if cucumbers can grow in the shade of Hell Gate, where the Harlem and East Rivers converge, Banfield is confident the farm program can grow too.