In poor and rural areas across the U.S., hundreds of prisons have been closed because of the country’s declining incarceration rate.
Some are abandoned and left to rot after they stop housing inmates. But inside the grounds of the decommissioned Scotland Correctional Center in Wagram, North Carolina, at-risk youth are planting seeds of change — and nurturing better lives.
Meet Terrence Smith and Noran Sanford. The latter is the founder and executive director of Growing Change, a nonprofit that transforms closed prison sites into farming and education centers. There, troubled youth are paired with returning military veterans who can guide them. Terrence is one of the first teenagers to benefit from this program. Now, nine years later, he works as the organization’s farm manager.
Noran, an experienced social worker and mental health therapist, started the organization in 2011 after a child he’d been working with died as the result of gang violence. He felt the criminal justice system had failed. So he went on a mission to help young men stay out of it and build themselves a better future. And the Scotland Correctional Center was the perfect place to start.
At first, Growing Chance only worked with juvenile offenders who had already been kicked out of school or their homes. But in 2016, it began accepting those struggling in school or with mental health, substance abuse, and toxic living situations. The main goal is to prevent them from committing crimes through structured farming activities such as beekeeping, growing food in the prison garden, tending to livestock, composting, and transforming the site to fit their vision. They also receive offsite-therapy.
Growing Change doesn’t just improve its members’ lives — it feeds the community! Because the surrounding counties are very poor with no access to locally grown produce, participants donate boxes full of fruits and vegetables they grow themselves to families in need. They also sell their crops to local restaurants, funding the program for years to come.
“At the core level, we are instilling hope,” Noran told Civil Eats. “When hope is gone, it creates a pretty vicious void that a lot of other grimmer things can get pulled into. And as low-wealth rural America is left further behind, then that vacuum is stronger. We’re breaking that stream.”
The best part? Growing Change actually works! The prison program was found to be 92 percent effective in preventing recidivism among its 24 members from 2011 to 2016. Now that’s how you turn lives around!
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