Story, photos by Krissi Khokhobashvili, Deputy Chief
CDCR Office of External Affairs

Surrounded by concrete, fences and industrial businesses, a garden is thriving in the unlikeliest of places thanks to hard work, innovative thinking and a team of men who have experienced all sides of the criminal justice system.

Ask Correctional Counselor III Mike Hagemann if 24 years ago he would have believed as a new correctional officer that he’d be working side by side with incarcerated men to create and care for a garden, he might have laughed. But now that he’s seen the impact, productivity, teamwork and the opportunity to care for something other than oneself can have, it’s exactly how he spends part of his time overseeing the Male Community Reentry Program in San Diego.

Hagemann likens the development of the MCRP Urban Garden to watching the growth of participants in the program.

“Plant something, tend to it, and watch it grow – from start to end,” he said.

MCRP is a program of CDCR’s Division of Rehabilitative Programs that allows eligible offenders to serve the last part of their sentence in the community in lieu of confinement in state prison.

MCRP San Diego is operated through a contract with Core-Civic and serves up to 120 participants at a time. Throughout their stay, the men participate in intensive rehabilitative programming with a focus on reentry, recovery and family reunification, and can even find jobs and go to school once they earn that privilege.

But Hagemann was looking for something that would also make the program feel like a home – after all, it’s where these men will live until they return to their homes in the San Diego region. The idea of planting a garden took root, and despite the unlikely conditions, the Urban Garden program has blossomed at MCRP San Diego.

Just about every spare inch of the grounds that can be sown now boasts thriving vegetable plants, from squash, tomatoes and radishes to carrots, cucumbers and so many hot peppers they have their own “Pepper Alley.” It’s all grown organically, and the men even worked with Hagemann to build raised beds using scrap wood. Seeds, starter plants and soil are donated, and the men are learning how to save seeds from the garden for next year.

It’s a truly home-grown effort, with the participants and Hagemann learning together about gardening. Few of the men had any gardening experience – David Smith was among the best-qualified for the program, having participated in a horticulture program while incarcerated at Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

“Mr. Hagemann asked if anybody knew how to garden, and I volunteered,” he said.

The group worked together to research gardening, and that process provided an additional rehabilitative element to the program. The gardening program, combined with all the other cognitive skills, job preparation assistance, and overall support available at MCRP, enabled Smith to enroll in truck driving school, and now he has a good job that he says will help him succeed and never return to prison.

“That’s the wonderful thing about the power of information now,” Hagemann said. “You can find any information you want. I can take these men who had absolutely no experience or skill in gardening, and they can research it, learn to use the computer lab, and gain access to the desired information. So many are long-term offenders who have never had access to a computer.”

They research the climate and seasonal changes of the San Diego area, find out what grows best when, and discover tips and ideas for growing new food.

Marcos Rubio said the men spend three to four hours a day in the garden, weeding, harvesting, watering, and planning what they’ll grow next.

“When I first got here, I told Mr. Hagemann I had never picked something and eaten it in my life,” Rubio said. “He gave me the opportunity to grow something and eat it. The other day I ate a cherry tomato – I want the corn next time!”

Participants eat what they grow, and what they don’t eat they donate. MCRP San Diego has a partnership with Kitchens for Good, a nonprofit that teaches culinary arts and employs cooks, including several MCRP participants.

Kitchens for Good also collects food donations from area restaurants and farmers to provide more than 500 meals a week to the homeless and food-insecure in San Diego. Chef instructor Theron Fisher said one of his favorite parts of the week is collecting the box of donated veggies from MCRP.

“For a lot of them, they know what it’s like to be hungry, and now they’re actually doing something for someone else,” he shared. “I teach them the whole process, from who we are serving to the flow of the business, and the flow of the meals.”

The garden is also having an immediate impact on the community. MCRP San Diego is located in Logan Heights, an underserved community where nearly half of the population lives below the poverty level. Seeing the struggles of the community around MCRP, Hagemann and the Urban Garden participants decided to give back. Now, as children and families walk home from school, they can pick any veggies they want from the sidewalk outside the MCRP.

“We made it well known that it’s for them,” Hagemann said. “We’re growing it for them to supplement their nutritional intake.”

Community members have gratefully taken squash, peppers and tomatoes from the garden, and Hagemann reports all are respectful of the garden and mindful of what they take, picking only what is needed and making sure there is enough for all. The men this autumn even planted pumpkins so they’ll be ready in time for Halloween.

“It’s therapy,” said Michael Verduzco, when asked why he enjoys gardening. “It’s a little stress relief – and we’re helping give back.”

So what does a 24-year CDCR veteran think when he looks over the Urban Garden, watching the men preparing to go home as they weed, water and experience what it’s like to enjoy the product of their hard work?

“It has been a very unique, very rewarding experience,” Hagemann said. “It’s indescribable. I have the best job in the state.”