Opinion: Nonprofit transforms old prison into farm

Michael Adyson Strickland, Logan Stern, and Robin Patel (left to right) transfer roosters to a different part of the former prison yard at the end of a work day in Wagram, North Carolina.
Michael Adyson Strickland, Logan Stern, and Robin Patel (left to right) transfer roosters to a different part of the former prison yard at the end of a work day in Wagram, North Carolina.

Credit: Christina Cooke

Credit: Christina Cooke

Founder hopes to see effort to help troubled youth replicated across U.S.

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 food under the donkey’s nose. She steps through the door in the chain-link fence, and her fleecy charges follow soon 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 young men affiliated with the nonprofit Growing Change are farming in an abandoned prison in rural Wagram, North Carolina. Since 2011, this group has been working to flip the Scotland Correctional Center — a facility decommissioned in 2001 — into a sustainable farm and education center. They’re leasing the property at no cost from the state’s Department of Public Safety.

During its first several years in existence, Growing Change engaged young men who were on intensive juvenile probation and had been kicked out of their schools and homes. But after 2016, the young people involved decided to change the eligibility requirements for future participants. Now, they welcome their peers facing chaos at home, failure at school, trouble with mental health or substance abuse, and involvement with the criminal justice system.

Designed to help teens avoid the criminal justice system, the program provides the young men with mental health treatment and the chance to develop workplace skills and the idea they can get from one point to another if they have 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 kid is one of the most damaging, opportunity-stripping experiences a person can have, he says.

Youth involved with the Growing Change program that's transformed an abandoned North Carolina prison site into a farm that trains troubled teens.
Youth involved with the Growing Change program that's transformed an abandoned North Carolina prison site into a farm that trains troubled teens.

Credit: Christina Cooke

Credit: Christina Cooke

Sanford has his sights set on a number of problems at once: the high number of young people entering the criminal justice system; the absence of job opportunities for veterans; the decline in small, independent farmers in the area; residents’ lack of access to local, sustainable food; and the health disparities between urban and rural areas.

A wakeup call at a funeral

Growing Change serves three counties near the southern border of North Carolina. More than a third of the people in the city of Lumberton, located in Robeson County, live below the poverty line and approximately 36 percent of the population is on Medicaid, compared with 18 percent nationally.

Sanford grew up in the area and was working as a social worker and mental health therapist for youth and families in the juvenile justice system when he received an unexpected wake-up call in 2009. A middle-schooler he’d been working with — who was smart and good with people — was killed in a gang-related incident.

“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 person of faith, he began to pray and spend structured time thinking about what he and the system could do differently.

At the same time, the old Scotland Correctional Center in Wagram, which he’d driven by dozens of times without considering, began to rise in his awareness.

When Sanford presented his idea of reclaiming the abandoned property, many of the young people he worked with thought he was “kind of kooky,” remembers Terrence Smith, who was part of the first cohort of 12 and is now the other salaried employee of Growing Change.

But once Sanford walked the young men through the property, handed them the keys, and asked them, “What do we do with this?” they grew excited about the possibilities, Smith says.

Instilling hope in people and place

In addition to providing off-site therapy, Growing Change puts youth in charge of creating and carrying out a collective vision for the former prison, situated on a 67-acre parcel.

Although the master plan will take years to achieve, a number of elements are already in place: The current nine participants are keeping bees, grazing a herd of sheep they will use for wool and meat, caring for a flock of laying hens, composting food waste and tending a garden with organic methods.

A central focus of their efforts is giving back to their community. During the first few years, participants tended a garden and distributed free boxes of produce and flowers to their food-insecure neighbors. And when the pandemic hit in March, the youth partnered with various agencies including Carolina Farm Stewardship to distribute boxes of food to people in need, including restaurant workers and furloughed hospital staff.

“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.”

Sanford hopes to provide a model for other places looking to do the same. Across the U.S., more than 300 prisons have been decommissioned, including 62 in North Carolina alone.

“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

The teen workers, who are paid hourly, spend one dedicated day a week, plus additional work periods, on the farm.

As the youth put the various elements of the massive project in place, Growing Change engages in a constant give-and-take with those around them. They receive around 600 pounds of discarded produce from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke (UNCP) each week; they redistribute the edible portions of that food to food banks, feed other scraps to the chickens, and recycle the spoiled pieces.

In all they do, Sanford looks for ways to create revenue streams to help compensate the youth and pay for the program. The farm sells eggs and salad greens to a nearby university, and it plans to sell meat and wool from the sheep as well.

Positive change for youth workers

Michael “Fluffy” Adyson Strickland became involved two years ago and has also learned many new skills, but his primary charge is to tame the guard donkey, Miss Easter, who was extremely 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. “When I got here, it opened my eyes,” says Strickland. He might like to pursue environmental science, with the aim of being able to help other people care for the environment, he says.

So far, the program has proven effective at its central goal of keeping young men out of prison — for the 24 youth involved over the five-year period from 2011 to 2016, an internal study found it was 92 percent effective at preventing recidivism and adult incarceration.

Creating a model to share

Sanford is in the process of creating an open-source prison-flipping model with step-by-step instructions and online resources. He is planning to distribute it to each of the 300 communities with a closed prison later this year via the national cooperative extension system.

Sanford hopes to help others in rural America convert spaces meant to confine and punish into spaces that nourish and rehabilitate.

Christina Cooke wrote this for the website Civil Eats.

These stories are part of the SoJo Exchange of COVID-19 stories from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.