Planting the seeds for a new life

By THERESA GAWLAS MEDOFF • Delaware First Media • June 2, 2011


Wilmington, Del. – Rhonda Thompson expects to get out of the Department of Correction's substance abuse treatment and work-release programs soon, and when she does, she will have marketable skills, several months of on-the-job experience planting trees, and a little cash saved to get her started on life after prison.


Thompson and three others graduate June 3 as the first all-female crew to go through the Delaware Center for Horticulture's (DCH) tree-planting and job-skills curriculum. Three groups of five men-15 in all-have completed the program since it began in fall 2009, and another group is scheduled to enroll this fall.


Thompson has all the optimism you would expect from a graduate embarking on a new stage of life. "There's no stopping us and there's no looking back," she said. "We know if we can do this, we can do anything. All it takes is for someone to believe in us and give us a chance, and this program gave us that chance."



DCH's Return-to-Work program is the type of public-private program that the Department of Correction would like to have more of, says Shane White, correctional counselor supervisor for New Castle County Community Corrections. The program both educates the public about the state's work-release program and opens up new avenues of employment for ex-offenders, she noted.


Early on in his administration, Governor Jack Markell announced that he was making prisoner re-entry programs a priority in order to reduce the number of repeat offenders. The Pew Center on the States has estimated that in 2004 the rate of recidivism nationally was 43.3 percent. In comparison in Delaware, 66.7 percent of offenders released from a jail or prison sentence from 1981 to 1994 returned to jail or prison within three years, according to a 1997 report from the Statistical Analysis Center, the most recent year for which information is available. A new study is in the works, said Kate Bailey, deputy principal assistant to the commissioner at the Delaware Department of Correction.


Cutting down the rate of recidivism, Markell has said, would serve the dual purpose of reducing crime and saving the state money. Housing an inmate costs more than $34,000 annually, according to Bailey. Approximately 6,600 people are incarcerated in Delaware. In May 2009, Markell announced the creation of I-ADAPT, a team which coordinates the work of state agencies charged with helping prisoners re-enter society. I-ADAPT (Individual Assessment, Discharge and Planning Team) calls for re-entry assistance to begin when the inmate is incarcerated and to move into a more rigorous phase six month's prior to the offender's release. Job skills and access to employment have been identified as vital to helping ex-offenders successfully reintegrate into society.


While the DCH program is one of numerous community-based efforts seeking to help former prisoners, it is the only one focused on environmental and green jobs, an area where the Delaware Department of Labor (DOL) predicts job growth, said Sherese Brewington-Carr, DOL administrator for the Prison-to-Work Initiative. "This particular population would not necessarily have had access to training and development in the environmental and green jobs area, so we began to look for some natural partnerships to do that," she said. For approximately 10 years, the DCH has run gardening and job skills classes at the Baylor Women's Correctional Institution, so Brewington-Carr turned to that organization for help.


The DCH Return-to-Work training combines four hours a week in the classroom with 33.5 hours in the field, according to Jen Bruhler, DCH Assistant Director of Urban Forestry. Bruhler adds DCH pays the ex-offenders wages of $9 to $9.75 per hour, which allows them to save money to help get on their feet once they're released. Over their 12 weeks in the program, the women have learned about plant identification, soil improvement, pruning techniques, disease and insect identification, and other issues related to tree care. They also have done a lot of hard, physical labor. The average size tree that they plant is 8-10 feet tall and with its root ball, the tree can weigh up to 275 pounds.


The ability to lift at least 50 pounds was one of the criteria for selection for the program. Women also needed to be highly motivated, have a good attitude and have good recommendations. Since the women would be working in the community, those convicted of assault or other crimes against a person were not eligible, Brewington-Carr said.


The women's work crew supervisor, John Potter of Kerns Brothers Tree Service, is among their biggest supporters. "I've stopped landscapers and told them that these women would outwork any of the guys they have now," he said. "They learn quickly and work hard. I would recommend them to any landscape or horticultural company out there." Kerns Brothers has provided on-the-job supervision for all of the DCH Return-to-Work groups.


By the time the women finish the program, they will have planted some 400 trees at private residences and community buildings in Wilmington, helping DCH get closer to its goal of planting 20 thousand trees in the city by 2020. They have planted a large variety, including cherry, lilac, redbud, crabapple, yellowwood, Princeton elms and three types of maples. Planting trees is about more than beautifying the city and helping to cut down on greenhouse gases; it is also a way to cut the crime rate, said Patrice Sheehan, tree program manager at DCH. She points to studies done by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that showed green spaces might inhibit crime in urban areas. The studies found that the greener a building's surrounding, the fewer reported crimes. Also, people who live in greener surroundings report lower levels of fear, fewer incivilities and less violent behavior.


Funding for the Return-to-Work program comes from a grant to the DCH from the Northeastern Area State and Private Forestry, U.S. Forest Service. Those funds run out after the upcoming fall training session, and DCH is seeking other grants in order to continue the program. The pilot program in 2009 was funded by the City of Wilmington Department of Public Works, Wilmington's 3rd District Neighborhood Planning Council, the Community Environmental Penalty Fund, State Senator Margaret Rose Henry and the late State Representative Hazel Plant, according to DCH Director of Programs Gary Schwetz.


Ex-offender Corrine Rosario, who used to work in banking, said she was looking for a career change and was happy to be offered the chance to train in an area in which jobs were on the rise. Working outdoors and having a positive impact on the environment in the city is rewarding, she added. "Planting these trees gives us the opportunity to make new memories for places we've been. I've done crime, and now I have a chance to give back."


Her co-worker Linda Hayman-Evans added that planting trees gives her hope for her future. "We go to areas where we had such a bad outlook. But when we plant trees there, I get a new view of it. I don't see the city the way I used to see it. I'm not afraid of it anymore."