Horticulture program readies inmates for life after prison

Credit: Cincinnati Zoo

Prison promotes pollination at Cincinnati Zoo farm

Credit: Cincinnati Zoo

A horticulture partnership program at an area prison is helping some prisoners with training they can use when released and helping the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Gardens attract pollinators to its Warren County farm.

Inmate Carlos Kerby looks forward to parlaying his knowledge and experience growing plants — expected to draw Monarch butterflies to the zoo’s EcoOhio Wetlands — into a job or business upon his release from the high-security prison.

Kerby, 36, of Clark County is scheduled for release on Nov. 16, 2021, after serving about 18 years in prison for his part in the 2001 shooting death of a video store clerk in Springfield.

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The changes witnessed as the Monarchs are transformed from caterpillar to butterfly are counted on to leave the inmates believing in their own futures.

“We have really embraced the concept of the butterfly,” Warden Wanza Jackson-Mitchell said last week. “It symbolizes transformation.”

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A Monarch butterfly has been painted on the wall inside the prison, west of Lebanon. A butterfly release celebration was held last year there.

“We all were able to celebrate what the inmates had done to protect that environment,” the warden said during a video conference, about the release party.

The vocational horticulture program is also designed to provide graduates with tools " to be successful not just in here, but when they leave,” she added.

The Warren Correctional Institution trains inmates for horticultural careers.
The Warren Correctional Institution trains inmates for horticultural careers.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

WCI, one of two prisons off Ohio 63, just east of Interstate 75, houses about 1,160 inmates, 30 of whom were enrolled in the program before COVID-19 issues. Now Kirby is among 12 educated and trained in smaller groups “to assure safe social distancing,” according to Warden’s Assistant Brian Baker.

About 1,000 plants can be raised in the 25-foot-by-25-foot greenhouse at the prison.

Since more than 300 milkweed and liatris were taken to be planted on Nov. 12 as part of prairie restoration at the zoo’s Bowyer Farm, Kirby and his associates have refocused on poinsettias.

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At least three graduates of the prison program are now working in horticulture jobs, officials said.

The local growing joint venture began 17 months ago after the zoo reached out to the prison.

‘We were looking for opportunities to do community service,” Jackson-Mitchell said.

WCI staffer Anita Eulenburg managed the program for the state.

Brian Jorg, the zoo’s Native Plant Program Manager, suggested the plants be raised at the prison, located near the zoo property. WCI staff, as well as inmates, participate in the community outreach collaboration.

“It provides an opportunity for the inmates to be involved in something that’s productive, something that gives them a connection between things in here and what goes on in the community,” Jackson-Mitchell said.

The pandemic has stalled plans to continue the collaboration.

“With COVID, everything has changed,” the warden said. “It is is probably changing how we move forward with the program.”

Kirby explained he was now helping to grow the Christmas plants in the prison greenhouse.

“I’m heavily involved in the program. I want to continue it after my release,” said Kirby, adding he is also studying criminal justice through Xavier University and has 20 hours of college credit through Sinclair Community College.

“It’s hard to grow but it’s fun learning it,” Kirby added. “You always have something to do.”

Even if Kirby didn’t wind up working in horticulture, he looked forward to growing his own plants and vegetables.

Kirby recalled zoo staff bringing in the plants and the wonder of the butterflies changing from chrysalises and fluttering off.

“There were so many,” he recalled.

Inmate Carlos Kerby of Clark County grows plants in the greenhouse at Warren Correctional Institution. Kerby, scheduled for release next November, plans to use these lessons to land a job or start a business. He is pictured here at the prison during a video conference.
Inmate Carlos Kerby of Clark County grows plants in the greenhouse at Warren Correctional Institution. Kerby, scheduled for release next November, plans to use these lessons to land a job or start a business. He is pictured here at the prison during a video conference.

Credit: Lawrence Budd

Credit: Lawrence Budd

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