Prison program adds color, teaches skills

From the outside, the Tyger River Correctional Institution looks just as you would expect a medium-security, state prison to look like: double rows of chain-link fence topped with razor-wire in front of a complex of nondescript, brick buildings.

Visitors first walk into a small, drab office where they take off their shoes, which are run through an X-ray machine, empty their pockets and walk through a metal detector.

Once given clearance, they are often surprised at what they see. There are flowers lining the walkways, in beds along the recreation area, even in front of the cell dorms.

Flowering shrubs soften the view of razor-wire fences. Lane and Alexander walk by a wooden bear carved by an inmate using a chain saw.

This prison, near Enoree, S.C., is home to 1,300 inmates, and is also a workplace for 238 security personnel and 75 nonuniform employees.

The remarkable landscaping program here adds color to an otherwise harsh, dreary environment.

“A lot of people have the misperception that everything is concrete,” said Gary Lane, associate warden responsible for operations and security. “I have to tell a lot of first-time visitors that what you see on TV is not actually true.”

Inmates can develop a sense of self-respect through honest labor, learning a useful skill and the satisfaction of making things grow, said Warden Tim Riley.

“It lets them see the benefit of hard work,” he said. “They can actually take part in something that will grow and produce and they can see the benefit of that, and it generates funds for us.”

None of this is a burden on the taxpayers, as the program is almost entirely self-sustaining.

“We can’t afford to go buy (flowers), so we have to grow them,” Riley said. “Then we have plant sales, and all that money goes back into the program to buy fertilizer and dirt and containers and the things that we need to continue the program.”

Making it grow

The officer in charge of the landscaping project at Tyger River is Sgt. Rhonda Alexander, a veteran of the state prison staff who took the position of horticulture supervisor in February 2007.

Although she’s had no formal training in landscaping, she’s no stranger to the field.

“I pretty much do all my yard work at home,” she said. “I’m an outside person.”

There’s plenty of outside to deal with here, more than 400 acres. Until 1999, it was operated as two separate prisons, Dutchman and Cross Anchor, with Dutchman being the higher security level of the two. It is on higher ground and now constitutes the “upper yard,” with the former Cross Anchor being the “lower yard.”

The property also includes a wastewater treatment plant and training range that the prison staff has to maintain.

Alexander’s responsibilities include supervising 28 inmates who work full-time five days a week keeping the landscape in top shape. That begins with the propagation of the plants in the greenhouses below the lower yard.

“It’s a full time job,” said one inmate in charge of plant propagation. “You don’t get much slack time keeping all these things going.”

The prison uses a variety of methods to start plants.

“We start them from seeds. We start them from propagating and dividing by the buds and one thing and another,” the inmate explained. “We’ve got a root bed back here that we use to root a lot of plants in.”

Inside one of the greenhouses at Tyger River.
Inmates returning mowers to the maintenance shed after cuttingpart of the prison’s green space.
An inmate working on a flower plot.

In late September, the greenhouse was filled with 5,000 pansies, 4,000 ornamental cabbages and 1,000 kale plants being readied for fall planting.

The inmates collect seeds from the mature plants each year and use them to grow the next generation.

“As each thing dies out I’ll send one of the inmates around with an envelope or maybe a peanut butter jar or something and collect all the seeds, and we use the seed from this year for next year,” she said.

Alexander assigns each inmate a section, with some areas requiring two inmates to handle.

Another inmate, responsible for maintaining the grounds around the prison’s education buildings, said, “I do watering, weeding, planting, uprooting, picking the seeds out of the plants and everything.”

He has earned a certificate in horticulture at the prison and plans to find work in landscaping when he is released in 2012. “I love this,” he said. “They call me the green thumb. I just love watching the flowers grow.”

Turf crew

Another crew, separate from Alexander’s landscape group, handles the mowing. The turf here is nothing fancy.

“I have 163 (inmates) altogether, but all of them don’t cut the grass,” Lt. Joyce Shelton, who supervises the turf crew, said. “I have about 80 that cut grass.”

Cutting all those acres, at least an acre or two for each man, is a fleet of reconditioned push mowers, rescued from the landfills and rebuilt by inmates. The only other mower is a Bush hog pulled by a Kubota tractor.

The turf, which appears to be mostly fescue, looks remarkably green and healthy considering that it gets no fertilization, no irrigation and no treatment for insect or disease problems.

Flowers

Flowerbeds are everywhere on the grounds of Tyger River Correctional Institution, but the landscaping is most impressive in three areas: a corner outside the education buildings featuring a mural painted by an inmate; a courtyard outside the prison chapel; and the walkway from the security entrance and the building where visitors meet with inmates.

The mural, which illustrates symbols of several state universities and local landmarks, is fronted by a broad swath of roses and other flowers and shrubs.

There are plans to add a fountain to this area and install a “state bed,” with a different type of flower representing each state, Alexander said.

The prison has earned accolades for its education program, and for its hardwood floor manufacturing facility. The landscape program, though, is what makes a lasting impression on visitors.

“They deserve the credit,” Alexander said of her crew. “They do all the hard work.”

Ron Barnett is a freelance writer and has been a frequent contributor to Turf over the years. He resides in Easley, S.C., and is always on the lookout for new and interesting stories in the Carolinas, Georgia and east Tennessee.