Youth Are Flipping an Abandoned North Carolina Prison into a Sustainable Farm


On a crisp, windy day in March, 17-year-old Norman Garcia-Lopez tries to coax a donkey and a herd of 14 sheep from a fenced yard out to open pasture. “Come on, Miss Easter,” he says, holding a shallow bowl of meals underneath the donkey’s nostril. She steps via the door within the chain-link fence, and her fleecy fees comply with quickly after, bleating.

Garcia-Lopez isn’t on a typical farm. Surrounded by tall fences and razor wire, he and the group of high-school-aged younger males affiliated with the nonprofit Growing Change are farming in an deserted jail in rural Wagram, North Carolina. Since 2011, this group has been working to flip the Scotland Correctional Center—a facility decommissioned in 2001 and subsequently left to decay—into a sustainable farm and training heart. They’re leasing the property for free of charge from the state’s Department of Public Safety.

The Scotland Correctional Facility, deserted since 2001, sits on 67 acres exterior of Wagram, North Carolina.

During its first a number of years in existence, Growing Change engaged younger males who have been on intensive juvenile probation and had been kicked out of their faculties and houses. But after 2016, the younger individuals concerned determined to vary the eligibility necessities for future members. Now, they welcome their friends dealing with chaos at dwelling, failure in school, hassle with psychological well being or substance abuse, and involvement with the felony justice system. Many are additionally minorities or possess a number of ethnic identities in a nation the place racism and xenophobia are rampant.

Designed to assist teenagers keep away from the felony justice system, which disproportionately imprisons individuals of shade, this system offers the younger males with psychological well being therapy and the possibility to develop office abilities and a sense of self-efficacy, or the thought they will get from one level to a different if they’ve a plan.

“These are the young men on which we build our adult prisons,” says Growing Change Founder and Executive Director Noran Sanford. Being locked up as a child is without doubt one of the most damaging, opportunity-stripping experiences a individual can have, he says. “As a clinician, as a social worker, as a mental health therapist, [I can tell you] it is one of the greatest risk factors in nearly every problem we’re dealing with today in our adult population.”

In his prison-flip work, Sanford has his sights set on a variety of issues directly: the excessive variety of younger individuals getting into the felony justice system; the absence of job alternatives for veterans; the decline in small, unbiased farmers within the space; residents’ lack of entry to native, sustainable meals; and the well being disparities between city and rural areas.

Scotland County Commissioner Carol McCall, a Growing Change board member and retired social employee, appreciates the intersectionality of the challenge. “The vision to take something discarded, unsightly, and unproductive and turn it into a working organization that serves a variety of purposes is unprecedented,” she says. “I’m really proud it’s happening right here in my own county.”

A Wakeup Call at a Funeral

Growing Change serves three counties close to the southern border of North Carolina within the japanese a part of the state. The space is extraordinarily various, dwelling to equal components Native American (primarily members of the Lumbee Tribe), Black, and white residents.

It can be extraordinarily poor: More than a third of the individuals within the metropolis of Lumberton, situated in Robeson County, stay under the poverty line; the county’s median family earnings is $33,700; and roughly 36 p.c of the inhabitants is on Medicaid, in contrast with 18 p.c nationally. Additionally, 21 p.c of the individuals in Robeson County and 25 p.c of the individuals in Scotland County expertise meals insecurity.

Compounding issues, these two counties had the worst well being rankings within the state in 2019, making residents particularly weak to COVID-19. While Scotland County has not been too closely hit by the virus but, as of press time Robeson ranks among the many high 10 counties within the state for infections, with case numbers on the rise. Because a number of of the Growing Change youth have underlying respiratory situations, the group is cautious to watch security protocols—like working in small teams and pausing operations if somebody near them is examined for the virus (which has occurred 4 instances to this point).

A tall, skinny white man in his early 50s with a lengthy, graying ponytail, Sanford grew up within the space and was working as a social employee and psychological well being therapist for youth and households within the juvenile justice system when he obtained an sudden wakeup name in 2009. A middle-schooler he’d been working with—who was good, good with individuals, and among the best working backs Sanford had ever seen—was killed in a gang-related incident.


Noran Sanford based Growing Change in 2011 to assist the youth he was working with as a mental-health therapist and social employee keep away from the felony justice system.

“I had to be honest with myself that the system had not done everything it could do, that I had not done everything I could do,” says Sanford. As a individual of religion, he started to wish and spend structured time fascinated about what he and the system might do otherwise.

At the identical time, the previous Scotland Correctional Center in Wagram, which he’d pushed by dozens of instances with out contemplating, started to rise in his consciousness. He realized that, up till the 1970s, North Carolina had made heavy use of inmates sentenced to chain gangs, together with these housed on the Wagram jail, to construct the state’s highways. Most of those prisoners have been Black, and plenty of had solely been convicted of minor crimes. In 1979, North Carolina had extra prisons and the very best incarceration charge of any state within the nation.

When Sanford introduced his concept of reclaiming the deserted property, lots of the younger individuals he labored with thought he was “kind of kooky,” remembers Terrence Smith, who was a part of the primary cohort of 12 and is now the opposite salaried worker of Growing Change.

But as soon as Sanford walked the younger males via the property, handed them the keys, and requested them, “What do we do with this?” they grew excited in regards to the prospects, Smith says.

Instilling Hope in People and Place

In addition to offering off-site remedy, Growing Change places youth accountable for creating and finishing up a collective imaginative and prescient for the previous jail, located on a 67-acre parcel a couple miles exterior Wagram’s tiny downtown.

Although the grasp plan will take years to attain, a variety of components are already in place: The present 9 members are retaining bees, rotationally grazing a herd of sheep they’ll use for wool and meat, caring for a flock of laying hens, composting meals waste, tending a backyard with natural strategies, and managing vermiculture and soldier fly operations.

Down the street, they hope to create aquaponic tanks and domesticate mushrooms (in former jail cells) and introduce a licensed group kitchen (within the galley), a jail historical past museum (within the barracks), a climbing wall (up a guard tower), a recording studio (within the freestanding scorching field constructing), and workers quarters and workplace area.

A central focus of their efforts is giving again to their group. During the primary few years, members tended a backyard and distributed free packing containers of produce and flowers to their food-insecure neighbors. And when the pandemic hit in March, the youth partnered with numerous companies together with Carolina Farm Stewardship to distribute packing containers of meals to individuals in want, together with restaurant staff and furloughed hospital staff. They additionally planted a new backyard on the previous jail softball discipline that they’ll harvest in late summer season and donate.


Robin Patel exits the previous guard tower the youth plan to flip into a group climbing wall.

This direct service permits outsiders to start seeing the younger males otherwise, Sanford explains. He additionally arranges alternatives for them to current the prison-flip mannequin they’re creating to college and authorities leaders throughout North Carolina, in addition to at locations just like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“What traditional therapy often doesn’t touch is … the community,” Sanford says. “There has to be some kind of social efficacy developed, that [community members] can have confidence that these young people can change. They have to make a place for them at the table.”

Admittedly, Growing Change is formidable. But all of it suits in to how Sanford—who has gained a number of awards and fellowships over time, together with the Soros Justice Fellowship in 2015 and the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016—units out to unravel issues. “This is a systems approach,” he says. “I’m a systems practitioner, really.”

Davon Goodwin, an Army-veteran-turned-farmer who grew to become concerned with Growing Change after getting injured in Afghanistan in 2010, sees agriculture as a good match for the youth, a lot of whom undergo from post-traumatic stress dysfunction (PTSD) like he does. Farming can present a refuge and sense of objective for people who find themselves battling trauma, he says.

“I don’t know what it is about soil, but it changes you—it humbles you, and it brings a sense of calm that the youth need,” says Goodwin, who sits on the Growing Change board, runs the Sandhills AGInnovation Center, and credit farming for setting him on a good path throughout a darkish time. “When you’re growing food, there’s fellowship that happens that doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

In addition to rehabilitating the youth and reworking the darkish, oppressive area in Scotland County into one thing helpful, Sanford hopes to offer a mannequin for different locations seeking to do the identical. Across the U.S., greater than 300 prisons have been decommissioned, together with 62 in North Carolina alone. Most are in poor, rural areas and have closed due to the declining variety of inmates within the U.S., the consolidation of many smaller prisons into fewer bigger ones, and, not less than in North Carolina, Sanford says, a variety of reforms affecting when individuals are despatched to jail.

200615-growing-change-flip-prison-system-agriculture-young-farmers-prison-reform-north-carolina-5-terrencesmith-350x529-5207648 Terrence Smith was an unique member of Growing Change, turning into concerned in 2011 on the age of 14. He now serves because the group’s farm supervisor. dsc_0141-350x528-6405946 Norman Garcia-Lopez began working with Growing Change a 12 months in the past and now helps oversee the beekeeping operation.

“At the core level, we are instilling hope,” Sanford continues. “When hope is gone, it creates a pretty vicious void that a lot of other grimmer things can get pulled into. And as low-wealth rural America is left further behind, then that vacuum is stronger. We’re breaking that stream.”

At Work on the Farm

After the launched sheep settle into grazing, Garcia-Lopez heads again into the jail yard to begin on one other challenge, tying the chain-link gate shut behind him with a thick rope. A rooster crows.

“I’ve been here almost a year, and I’ve seen so much progress,” says the 17-year-old, carrying a black fleece jacket and blue denims. “It’s neat seeing stuff coming together, even the small things.”

The teenagers, who’re paid hourly, spend one devoted day a week, plus further work intervals, on the farm. On this Saturday morning, a number of initiatives unfold throughout the flat yard and contained in the brick barracks constructing filled with steel-barred cells.

Over the previous few weeks, the youth have constructed a minivan-sized hen tractor out of wire and PVC pipe they salvaged from the jail drain discipline. Today, a few of them are reinforcing the joints with metallic brackets to allow them to include the chickens as they begin grazing them behind the sheep. In a totally different nook of the yard, one other group patches gaps within the chain-link fence so the roosters, who’ve been antagonizing the hens, might be put in their very own “bachelor pad.” And contained in the barracks, a third group modifies the aeration system they’ve constructed for the compost pile housed in a cell previously used for solitary confinement.

The native cooperative extension and consultants on the state’s two land-grant universities, N.C. State University (NCSU) and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University, have offered steering and help via your complete challenge. Students on the NCSU School of Design helped craft the property’s grasp plan, and consultants in subjects like rotational grazing, mycology, and vermiculture additionally information the youth.

Inside the barracks, Terrence Smith leans over the deep freezer that has been repurposed as a worm bin for a vermicomposting challenge. Smith makes use of a hand rake to stir the darkish soil, exposing a variety of wriggling worms. “I put five pounds of bananas in here a few days ago, and they’ve eaten the crap out of them—there’s only the skins left!” he says, impressed.


Terrence Smith checks on the worms within the vermiculture operation he’s serving to get off the bottom with the steering of an skilled at NC State University.

As the youth put the varied components of the large challenge in place, Growing Change engages in a fixed give-and-take with these round them. They obtain round 600 kilos of discarded produce from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) every week; they redistribute the edible parts of that meals to meals banks, feed different scraps to the chickens, and provides the spoiled items to both the compost pile or the soldier flies, whose larvae they’re elevating to assist feed the animals.

In all they do, Sanford appears to be like for methods to create income streams to assist compensate the youth and pay for this system. The farm sells eggs and salad greens to a close by college, and it plans to promote meat and wool from the sheep as properly. Though the backyard they’re tending this spring will provide free meals to the group, they ultimately plan to develop the substances for chowchow—a recipe that honors the varied backgrounds of program members: collards for the Black youth, tomatoes for the Native Americans, cabbage for the Scotch-Irish, and jalapeños for the Latinxs—and supply the product on the market.

“Our county has many challenges,” Dr. Debby Hanmer, Growing Change board chair and founding father of the sustainable agriculture program on the close by UNCP. “I want us to be an example of what sustainable can look like, not just in agriculture, but in all things.”

‘They Bring Out A Better Side of Me’

While massive commodity farms dominate a lot of the panorama on this a part of North Carolina, Garcia-Lopez, like many of the different teenagers concerned, didn’t know a lot about farming when he grew to become concerned a 12 months in the past. “My first day, they were like, ‘What do you know about bees?’ and I was like, ‘Absolutely nothing!’” he says. He now helps oversee the beekeeping operation.

Michael “Fluffy” Adyson Strickland grew to become concerned two years in the past and has additionally realized many new abilities, however his major cost is to tame the guard donkey, Miss Easter, who was unhandled and very skittish when she arrived in 2018.

“I saw her, and I clicked with her—I was one of the only people who could touch her at one point in time,” says the 16-year-old, who wears a hoody and rubber boots and has his thick hair tied up in a knot. “Once I started rubbing her back, Noran was like, ‘Do you want to start taming her?’” Eventually, this system hopes to have the ability to enable youngsters locally to pet the donkey.

200615-growing-change-flip-prison-system-agriculture-young-farmers-prison-reform-north-carolina-12-michaeladysonstrickland-350x279-2527654 Michael Adyson Strickland 200615-growing-change-flip-prison-system-agriculture-young-farmers-prison-reform-north-carolina-11-misseasterleads-350x232-2311560 Miss Easter leads the sheep from the enclosed jail yard out into the pasture to start grazing.

“When I got here, it opened my eyes,” says Strickland. He may wish to pursue environmental science, with the intention of having the ability to assist different individuals take care of the atmosphere, he says.

The strongest facet of this system for Ryan Morin, a 15-year-old with side-swept hair and a tie-dye T-shirt, has been the relationships he’s developed with the opposite members. “We were all in a compromised position [when we arrived], which left us vulnerable,” he says. “The first people we encountered, we found a special bond with them. They bring out a better side of me; they have shown me who I really am and what I can become.”

So far, this system has confirmed efficient at its central aim of retaining younger males out of jail—for the 24 youth concerned over the five-year interval from 2011 to 2016, an inner examine discovered it was 92 p.c efficient at stopping recidivism and grownup incarceration.

Some say that the last word affect can’t be decided till years from now, as soon as the “troubled” youth have grown up extra and charted their very own paths. But Sanford says he has seen noteworthy modifications. “You see youth who are learning how to work successfully; they are being able to get control of substance abuse patterns; they are working through and stabilizing some of their interpersonal relationships … And you see some healing within some family systems.” Additionally, Sanford says, members have gone on to attend school, be part of the army, and safe regular employment.


Michael Adyson Strickland, Logan Stern, and Robin Patel (left to proper) switch roosters to a totally different a part of the jail yard on the finish of a work day.

A decade after getting concerned on the age of 14, Smith is a shining instance. He grew up in an abusive family and, after being placed on probation in seventh grade, was ordered to work with a Sanford as a therapist.

The program “helped me stay grounded enough to complete high school—and look forward to something afterward,” Smith says. It additionally taught him to hold himself in a approach that folks respect and reply to.

Creating a Model to Share

In hopes of serving to others replicate the mannequin, Sanford is within the course of of making an open-source prison-flipping mannequin with step-by-step directions and on-line sources. He is planning to distribute it to every of the 300 communities with a closed jail later this 12 months through the nationwide cooperative extension system.

Sanford hopes to assist others in rural America convert areas meant to restrict and punish into areas that nourish and rehabilitate. “If you look at a lot of these issues, especially around incarceration, it’s [been] a 90 percent urban conversation,” says Sanford. He needs to see that change.

At finish of the day, the younger individuals wrap up their initiatives and collect within the space being secured for the roosters. Strickland and two different younger males retrieve the orange birds from their pens and set them down; two instantly start to battle, fluffing their feathers and leaping towards one another. The younger males hover, tempted to intervene. “Let ’em go,” Sanford says. “They’ve got to work this out.”