LAURINBURG — Working for the last several years toward a plan to rehabilitate the Wagram Correctional Center as a sustainable farm and educational center for at-risk youth, Laurinburg social worker Noran Sanford has learned, among other things, that he is alone in navigating uncharted territory.
Last week, while more than 4,000 miles from Scotland County, that perception changed somewhat.
Sanford is the founder and chair of Growingchange.org, an effort to give a new lease on life to the abandoned Wagram prison — and, through the facility, to generations of young people, whether criminal offenders or those facing disciplinary action at school, who are at high risk for entry into the adult justice system.
“The clinical model, that we of course hope to expand on the site, is designed to work with what we call experience experts — our youth who themselves were deep in the correctional system and now, through this model, are helping to lead the state and begin creating a model for closed prison reuse,” Sanford said.
The organization’s efforts to acquire ownership of the prison from the N.C. Department of Public Safety have proceeded steadily since a defining moment, in late 2013, when Growing Change youth leaders Terrence Smith and Cody Oxendine sold the idea to department leadership on the 14th floor of the Archdale Building in Raleigh.
While the organization remains on track for a 2017 groundbreaking, its concept has caught national attention. But a contact this summer from Young in Prison, an international NGO based in the Netherlands, came as a surprise. With the support of the United Nations and Oxfam, Young in Prison collaborates with organizations in five countries to implement pioneering approaches to working with youth in conflict with the law.
The group initially sought more information about the Growing Change story as a part of innovate2empower, an effort to facilitate international collaboration between groups working in challenged areas. Before they knew it, Sanford and Smith were sharing their vision for Growing Change with the group via Skype.
“At the beginning it was simply about them doing stories on all these different groups,” said Sanford. “What we didn’t realize is that were were also being interviewed for a potential fellowship.”
On Oct. 10 — a scant four weeks after Growing Change was selected as one of five international fellows — Sanford was on a plane to Amsterdam to work with counterparts from South Africa, Kenya, Malawi, Costa Rica, Colombia, Turkey, and the Netherlands.
The week-long conference also involved discussions with Dutch legislators and members of the justice system. Sanford soon found that, though the United States could be considered one of the the most “developed” countries represented, the nation’s reputation vis-a-vis its prison population preceded him.
Although the United States as a whole represents about 4.5 percent of the global population, more than 20 percent of the world’s incarcerated population exists within its borders.
“It was a strange place as an American to be, with my ideas about the other nations, to have all of the other nations at that conference to know our nation’s incarceration rate off the top of their head,” Sanford said.
“I realized that I was there to learn and benefit from the wisdom of other nations who, despite much fewer resources, were managing this crisis very differently.”
But much of what Sanford had to contribute from his experience with Growing Change, ultimately an effort to empower youth who have run afoul of the law to imagine and execute solutions to the problem of disused prison facilities, was more positive.
“They were interested in a group that came from a very challenged area in the United States to be a leader in this movement, and they were interested in the fact that there apparently are some people in the United States who are trying to lower our incarceration rates,” Sanford said.
Though hailing from distant lands and grappling with vastly different legal systems, the organizations found that they had just as much in common. Many, for example, are focused on an entrepreneurial model, and incorporate some form of art.
Ultimately, the vision for Growing Change involves installing at the Wagram Correctional Center facilities for several advanced agricultural techniques, including vermiculture, aquaponics, and biofuel production. The center will also have athletic facilities, and the prison’s guard tower will be repurposed as a water tank and climbing wall.
And the plan doesn’t end in Wagram —six closed prison facilities exist within 50 miles of Laurinburg, and Sanford hopes to export the model to other such problem sites in North Carolina and across the country.
“The more innovation that we bring to our area, the more we’re able to change the messaging of our area,” he said. “Our region is known for its complicated problems, and I don’t think anyone should take those lightly. But what is not shared are our strengths, assets, and stories of innovation.”
Mary Katherine Murphy can be reached at 910-506-3169.