A man stoops over a row of plants with his hands folded behind his back, closely examining the colouration on the leaves and moisture of the soil.
Around him are hundreds of plants of varying species, each requiring their own care and consideration. To him, they are his children — he has been tasked with caring for them.
Nearby, several other men are busy pruning stalks and preparing for spring growth. Soon, their brightly-lit greenhouse will be shaded by a jungle of plant, which will grow out of reach.
Despite wearing the same uniform, these men aren’t scientists or certified horticulturalists. They’re inmates.
To some, planting a seed and watching it grow might sound like a monotonous task.
But to inmates at the Okanagan Correctional Centre (OCC) in Oliver, it’s therapeutic and perhaps life-changing. The food they grow is donated back into surrounding communities.
“It gives you a feeling of satisfaction,” said Kim, whose full name is being withheld due to privacy.
“It’s way better than sitting inside on the unit.”
The OCC is a multi-level, medium security prison, which is in its third year of operation.
The greenhouse itself is outside the secured perimeter and only inmates classified as “open-custody” are permitted to take part in the program.
Inmates can become open custody after completing a review process of their incarceration. The review process determines whether or not somebody going outside the secure perimeter is a risk.
For the past seven weeks, Kim has participated in the OCC greenhouse program; an initiative launched to teach inmates new skills, giving them a sense of purpose and a new outlook on life.
“We’ve got just about everything growing in here,” said Kim.
“This side’s tomatoes and cucumbers and that side’s a mixture of everything, you name it.”
At peak season, the greenhouse has the potential to produce massive amounts of produce — sometimes 200 cucumbers a day.
For the most part, those working in the greenhouse are left alone while they garden.
However, there are only about 15 men in the program who have earned this taste of freedom.
“Everybody’s a fresh face,” said Kim. “You try and help each other, it goes a long way.”
He said the greenhouse is a means to work, provides a routine and offers a sense of accomplishment.
He added some working in the program have never experienced this before.
“It’s kind of nice,” he continued. “Some people have never done anything before.”
It’s at this time Kim nods at another inmate across the greenhouse.
“I don’t think he’s ever had a job before,” Kim explained. “Now he’s in here doing this and he’s right into it.”
Their schedule is very similar to that of a regular workday, starting at 8 a.m. with garbage duty and before moving on to the next task.
They conclude around 2 p.m., but Kim explained there’s always more work to be done.
“It’s never-ending of course,” he laughed.
In addition to tending to the plants, Kim is involved in the growth of the latest crop. He looked around proudly at the growth in the tomato and cucumber plants.
“I planted every one of these,” he exclaimed. “It makes me feel good. They’re like all my little babies.”
At the OCC, the programs sector is spearheaded by two individuals, warden Debby Rempel and assistant deputy warden of work programs Candice Wagner.
Wagner has worked with criminal offenders for 10 years and has been working in the programs sector for 18 months. She said she loves to see both staff and inmates excel at what they do.
“If you’re growing a fruit, you plant it as a seed, and you see the rewards come to life,” she said.
“Giving back to the community is such a good feeling.”
Food harvested through the program is donated back to the community through programs such as Meals on Wheels, and the local food bank.
Meals on Wheels is a non-profit community program that operates out of the Penticton Regional Hospital.
Additionally, the group organizes the Breakfast Learning Club, a program that aims to provide nutritious breakfasts to elementary school students.
The greenhouse program at the OCC also donates produce to this program.
A man released on Tuesday (Feb. 25) was a regular worker in the greenhouse program and Wagner believes he took many of the life skills he learned in the OCC with him when he left.
Rempel added they are not punitive in their corrections centres, but rather giving them a sense of purpose that they can carry with them after their release.
“We are here to give people opportunities when they get out, to have some skills and to understand and see that there are people out there that want to help them and that there are people in here that want to help them and want them to be successful,” said Rempel.
“That’s I think the joy that we get out of our day.”