It’s nearly 100 degrees outside. Steven Vanvickle is surrounded on all sides by 14-foot-tall, razor-sharp barbed wire fences. Standing in the five-acre restorative justice garden of the Boonville Correctional Center, he’s never felt more free.
“I’ve spent my whole life in prison, and I’ve never really done that much to change who I was,” Vanvickle said. “I’m giving back to society for the first time, instead of taking.”
Vanvickle has been working in the Boonville Correctional Center’s restorative justice garden for a little over a month. Each year, eight to 10 inmates work in the garden on a voluntary basis. Inmates fund the garden through commissary purchases. All of the produce is then donated to local food banks and charities. Crops not suitable for eating become compost for the garden.
So far this year, the restorative justice garden has donated about 2,500 pounds of food, but institutional activities coordinator and garden supervisor Louis Stock said that the garden is well on track to meet its 25,000 pound donation goal by the end of the summer. This year, the garden is growing a wide variety of produce from cauliflower to cantaloupe. Inmates are also tending to a plethora of vibrantly colored flowers to send with food donations.
“They’re not all bad guys,” Stock said. “A lot of the guys here are good people who’ve made mistakes. If we can get them headed on the right path like this, we hope they keep going in that direction when they get out.”
Stock has been supervising the garden for about a year. Prior to this, he worked in the prison as a correctional officer and member of the Correctional Emergency Response Team.
“I’ve noticed that a lot of the general public has this attitude of ‘let’s lock up offenders and throw away the key,’” Stock said. “Missouri prisons tend to offer a lot of programming. Prison should be a deterrent, but we should give offenders the chance to be successful, too.”
The program isn’t without its flaws. Stock has to double check equipment inventory after every shift and paperwork typically stalls the purchase of needed supplies for at least three weeks.
Sonnie Johnson, a Boonville Correctional Center inmate, has been working in the garden since September.
“I just wanted to work outside,” Johnson said. “I learned to help other people. We get a little bit of freedom. Mostly it just reminds me that there’s a lot of people less fortunate than us, even though we’re locked up.”
In 2002, Missouri was the first of eight states chosen by the National Institute of Corrections as a demonstration site for the “Transition from Prison to Community Model.” Restorative justice is a major part of this plan, which was later renamed the Missouri Reentry Process. This system of criminal justice is aimed at rehabilitating offenders through reconciliation with victims and the community as well as preventing future offenses. Missouri’s recidivism rate, or the percent of released inmates who are rearrested, is significantly lower than the national average. In Missouri, 28 percent of inmates released will return to prison within three years, according to the Missouri Department of Corrections Fiscal Year 2016 Offender Profile. Nationally, this number sits around 67.8 percent, according to the National Judicial Institute.
All 21 prison facilities in Missouri offer some sort of restorative justice program.
“It gives these inmates hope at a time when they can feel really hopeless,” said Aubrey Coday, who assists Boonville Correctional Center inmates with reentry to society.
In the Boonville Correctional Center, inmates also knit hats to donate to premature babies and sell craft items to raise money for the Missouri Special Olympics.
“It’s something positive in a very negative environment,” Stock said. “And that’s a pretty good feeling.”