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City Folk

Planting Jailhouse Seeds

Local activist/radical hopes to rehabilitate troubled kids with gardens

Photo: Frank Klein, License: N/A

Frank Klein


Gary Ashbeck would love for the kids he works with in the Baltimore City Detention Center to return to jail.

“I’m envisioning an alumni program,” he says. He wants former juvenile inmates to come back in and teach the kids who are locked up.

This is not as crazy as it first sounds. Ashbeck has a little farm inside. He’s teaching children awaiting trial on adult charges like murder and armed robbery how to grow food.

“Because you can teach every lesson—every lesson: history, English—with a garden,” Ashbeck says. “Every school should have a garden.”

BCDC functions as a jail, but for children charged with crimes and awaiting disposition, it’s also a school.

Ashbeck’s jail garden is an offshoot of Baltimore City Sprouts, a program he started in 2010 to teach city youth gardening—and everything else. He’s got six sites now (including his own backyard), mostly on the West Side. He says he was surprised and delighted when the BCDC warden welcomed him. The BCDC garden, with about 20 small raised beds, is right past the security port. Tomatoes, watermelon, peppers and squash grow along the ancient stone wall of the prison next door. Everyone—staff and visitors alike—files past as they enter the facility.

Gardens offer lessons in math and science, chemistry, nutrition, and various other fields, plus they’re a way to engage children, Ashbeck says. They are also calming and, for some, exotic. Ashbeck says he started by bringing produce into the jail. “There was one kid who didn’t know what a watermelon was,” he says.

The kids in the second group asked for a pineapple. Ashbeck brought it in. “I thought it was a great lesson,” he says, “because you can grow a pineapple from a pineapple.”

Pineapples were not among the things grown on the Wisconsin farm where Ashbeck grew up. He came to Baltimore after years of anti-war activism and a stint in prison for civil disobedience. (He broke into the School of the Americas at Fort Benning in order to pray for those killed by the American military.)

In 2002, he moved into Jonah House, the storied Catholic Worker community on Bentalou Street on the West Side. He served there as gardener too, maintaining the adjacent St. Peter’s Cemetery with the help of goats and a llama. The work was hard—one goat in particular had a penchant for escape, and Ashbeck ended up carrying it several hundred feet on a near-daily basis. “I was in the best shape of my life,” he says.

Ashbeck also did some capers. He was part of a group of peace activists who hung an anti-war banner from the Pentagon in 2004. He also trekked with a group across Cuba to the U.S. base and prison at Guantanamo Bay and prayed a kilometer or so from the base. Lately, he’s gotten married, bought a little house to fix up, and, with his wife, produced two children, now one and four years old. “Kids have left me taking less risks but more devoted to local issues,” he says.

Ashbeck says he was working in construction after his move from Jonah House. One day, he went by St. Mary’s Seminary.

“I see all this land next to people who are hungry,” he says. He came up with the idea for City Sprouts and sent a proposal to the Open Society Institute. He got an 18-month fellowship.

The grant ran out this past April. Ashbeck has been scrambling ever since to find funding for the project. “I know I’m not good at raising money. I’m just a simple farmer,” Ashbeck says. “I’m doing odd jobs all over the city just so my family can eat.”

Ashbeck says the prison garden project could get by with the five hours a week he now devotes to it. But he wants it to grow big and involved enough that the kids come out with marketable skills. He wants them to get horticultural jobs. He’s hoping to get a hoop house built so the plants will have longer growing season. Ashbeck thinks it could be a full-time program. He thinks the budget would be about $10,000, which includes money to bring in other people to help teach different skills.

Tracking the kids in the jail program is problematic, because Ashbeck is not a state social worker or a juvenile corrections official—credentials that would allow him to know anything about the youths. “I’m not even sure how much information I’m allowed to get,” he says. This makes it hard for Ashbeck to do what he thinks is most needed: hook the kids up with employers when they finish their time.

“I want to make a difference in their lives,” Ashbeck says. “To do that I need to be able to communicate with their lawyers. And give job references.”

Scaled up and with the right backing, Ashbeck says, gardens like his could transform the city.

Over in his neighborhood, Ashbeck surveys the Peace Park, which other neighbors, notably led by Baltimore City Public Schools’ exec Michael Sarbanes and his wife, Jill Wrigley, helped bring to fruition over 10 years, with help from foundations and the city’s government. It’s a neat, unfussy space featuring a deck, three big shade trees, a couple of pathways, some cut logs, and a bench for seating. There are also four big, raised beds full of good dirt. Ashbeck recruits a couple of neighborhood youths to plant some watermelon, but they wander off before the task begins. Ashbeck presses his 4-year-old son Noah into the task.

“Like I said, everyone of those gardens can be a job,” he says. “But until we value that, as we should, it’s not going to be.”

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