WESTOVER, Md. — Don Vass, an admitted drug dealer, pulls a cabbage from the ground, then hands it to Walter Labord, a convicted murderer.
They are gardening behind soaring brick walls at Maryland’s largest penitentiary, where a group of inmates has transformed the prison yard into a thriving patch of strawberries, squash, eggplant, lettuce and peppers — just no fiery habaneros, which could be used to make pepper spray.
It’s planting season behind bars, where officials from San Quentin in California to Rikers Island in New York have turned dusty patches into powerful metaphors for rebirth. The idea: transform society’s worst by teaching them how things bloom — heads of cabbage, flowers, inmates themselves.
“These guys have probably never seen something grow out of the ground,” says Kathleen Green, the warden at Eastern Correctional Institution, watching her inmates till the soil. “This is powerful stuff for them.”