Alan Grant steps back from the flowerbed he has been carefully weeding and reflects on his morning’s work. “It takes you away from prison a bit,” he says, “it’s therapeutic, it’s enjoyable. My time here would have gone slower if it wasn’t for the garden.”
Since his transfer to Parc prison near Bridgend in south Wales almost three years ago, Grant has worked in the jail’s gardens. His family and friends have noticed the impact it has had on him.
“The job does help people, especially if they struggle,” he says. “Gardening helps with mental health and I think they should do more of it in jail. It gives a sense of purpose; it takes our minds off things. It keeps me going. I’m happy and I enjoy it.”
Every available space at Parc is used – what was a builder’s yard during renovation work is now allotments growing fruit and vegetables that will be used in the staff canteen; a former area of wasteland is now a calming Japanese-style garden, an area of quiet contemplation used by the officers. There are also beehives, bug hotels, bird boxes and a pond.
Particular thought has been put into making the prison more attractive and welcoming for visitors. The walkway from the entrance gate to the visiting area is decorated by a string of brightly planted hanging baskets.
“Prisons are very austere, there’s hardly any greenery, shrubs, gardens, or anything,” says Mike Thomas, a manager who oversees Parc’s horticulture staff. “The garden goes through the centre of the prison and you see straight away it has a calming effect on people.
“The men who work in the garden feel differently about themselves; they have been given trust. In the eight years I’ve been in my job, not one prisoner [working in the gardens] has been placed on governor’s report for disobeying rules.”
Parc is a private training prison and young offender institution run by G4S with a capacity of almost 1,700, including 60 young people. The 15 men who work in the garden earn £28 a week for 40 hours’ work. Alongside their work, they study for qualifications in horticulture. Men who have worked in the gardens have taken jobs in horticulture after their release.
The project is in line with the prison education and employment strategy launched last year by the then prisons minister, David Gauke, which focused on the benefits of work and training in reducing reoffending. But Boris Johnson’s recent announcements on crime and justice – including pledging £2.5bn to create an extra 10,000 prison places and £100m to improve prison security – suggest the government’s emphasis is shifting more towards punishment than rehabilitation.
Parc’s work has been recognised by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS), which last week named the jail as winner of the Windlesham Trophy, an annual award for prison gardens. The competition was launched in 1984 by the then chairman of the parole board, Lord Windlesham, to acknowledge the positive impact of gardening on prisoners. Twenty prisons entered this year’s competition. There is some sort of horticulture work going on in 30 prisons around the country.
Plants at Parc are as good as can be seen at the Chelsea flower show, says Jon Wheatley, an RHS council member and Windlesham Trophy judge. But, he adds, “it is not just about pretty hanging baskets,” and judges were impressed by Parc’s focus on wildlife, sustainability and the climate.
Research by the University of Central Lancashire this spring found prison horticulture programmes had a “marked effect on mental health and wellbeing”.
Having the gardens and work to occupy him has been important for Howard Ellis, who in a shed in the Parc grounds converts wooden pallets into planters for the horticulture team. “If it wasn’t for this, it would be very difficult,” he says. “When I am busy like this, I am focused; in my way I rely on hiding in my work.
Parc’s horticulture instructor, Gareth John, says the environment helps the prisoners “whatever is going on in the wings, whatever is going on in their personal lives.” He adds: “We don’t seem to have any trouble in the garden. The guys come out and they enjoy it. They ask to come out at weekends and work extra shifts. They really enjoy working, it makes the time go quicker.”
Both John and Thomas are full of ideas for future projects. More than anything, Thomas would like to introduce more outdoor therapeutic areas and visiting spaces, “so families can have visits in pleasant surroundings, rather than a table and four chairs in a locked room.”