WAGRAM — In 2012, when Terrence Smith was first approached by Laurinburg clinical social worker Noran Sanford about devoting a summer to working in a community garden, the 15-year-old’s only point of reference was time he spent as a child reluctantly helping on his grandfather’s farm.
But having worked with Sanford for four years, Smith was disinclined to say no.
“Terrence was clearly bright, clearly had some serious challenges he grew up in, had great potential, and was being recruited by the gangs,” Sanford said of the middle school student he first met. “He was on the verge of getting completely kicked out of school, and we had to do something about that.”
That summer, Smith and eight other youth involved with the juvenile justice system at the Dispositional II level — one step away from incarceration — devoted their days to working in the Laurinburg Presbyterian Church garden.
“The guys were game,” Sanford said. “These were all volunteers.”
The group of 14-16-year-olds forming the Growing Change clinical trial group planted, harvested, and delivered nearly a ton of fresh food to nine needy families over the course of one growing season. Since then, they have built compost bins for community gardens, built beehives, and prepared plots for elderly gardeners.
“It was constant work, but we were going swimming after we got done with our daily routine,” Smith said. “It was more like forming a brotherhood than just coming to work.”
Each seed planted and structure erected comprised the foundation for another scene, which Sanford recalls as his “most significant moment … clinically and professionally,” at the end of last year at the N.C. Department of Public Safety headquarters in Raleigh, as Smith and his youth co-leader Cory Oxendine pitched the idea for Growing Change to the department’s executive leadership team.
“Two youth who had been on probation, served by the department, one step away from juvenile prison, now were at the 14th floor of the Archdale Building leading the department in an initiative,” Sanford said.
The problem of the Wagram Correctional Center has lingered on the edges of the county’s consciousness since its closure in 2001. And with the decline in North Carolina’s inmate numbers since 2009 and the state’s consolidation of its inmate population to larger prisons, the phenomenon is no longer unique.
“Prisons are closing,” Sanford said. “That’s not a terrible problem to have, but it’s in the rural areas that these closed prisons are kind of falling into disuse and vandalism. So the department is keen on figuring out what to do with these sites, some of which go back to the 1920s and 1930s.”
Dating back to the late 1920s, the Wagram prison neither carries the notoriety of an Alcatraz or a Sing Sing, nor is it situated on the prime real estate a more urban prison might inhabit, making its reinvention as an apartment complex or yoga retreat financially unprofitable. Destroying it, with the level of asbestos present in its buildings, would bring prohibitive expense.
The Growing Change proposition is deceptive in its simplicity: convert the prison site to a working farm. Its workers? Youth owing community service hours to the court system, middle and high school students facing disciplinary action in the school system, and youth who have themselves identified their need for help and diversion.
“Traditionally, community service consists of picking up trash on the side of the road,” said Sanford. “There’s nothing wrong with youth picking up trash on the side of the road. I volunteer to go pick up trash on the side of the road. However, if we’re marching youth up and down the side of the road picking up trash, what are we reinforcing? Especially if the supervisor perhaps is a different race and the youth are not choosing to be there. What does that look like?
“From a cognitive behavioral point of view, perhaps we can reinforce something else.”
Whether it is nobler to rehabilitate troubled youth or to plan to thereby develop a national model for closed prison use may be a tough call, but Sanford has coined a term to describe both: “flipping your prison.” Conversion of the Wagram prison provides an avenue for youth to escape the downward trajectory of confinement within a life to which poverty, crime, and substance abuse are no strangers.
“The prison flip is both our clinical metaphor as well as our literal task,” he said. “Each of these guys has flipped their own prison in that they were headed to lockup in the future statistically. They’ve flipped their own personal prison and have served from the beginning as our leadership team in helping to flip actual prisons.
“If you think about it, where were these small prisons built? They were built primarily in poor rural areas of color or disenfranchisement. Well, within the problem are elements of the solution.”
A sustainable model
The vision doesn’t end with troubled youth and a few rows of tomatoes. In fact, Sanford admits that his research in the field of sustainable agriculture has introduced him to techniques, such as aquaponics and vermiculture, that are familiar to very few.
One of the most ambitious agricultural plans for the site is an aquaponics chamber, or conversion of an entire row of cells into a massive fish tank. Fish waste will be pumped from the tank to a greenhouse, where it will be filtered and absorbed by the contained flora and pumped back into the fish tank.
Sanford’s co-chair in the Growing Change effort, Debby Hanmer, is coordinator of the sustainable agriculture track of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s environmental science degree. The program attracts both people who actually aspire to farming or ranching, and also those interested in agritourism, farmers’ markets, and hunger issues.
“Generally when we talk about sustainable agricutlure we think it has three parts to it,” said Hanmer. “The first thing is it has to be environmentally sustainable, and then the second thing is it needs to be economically viable, so in other words you can make a decent living doing it, and the third thing is it needs to be socially just.
“Under that I include things like animals are raised in a humane way, workers are working in a safe environment and paid a living wage.”
Ultimately, the Growing Change site will serve as an internship site for UNC-P sustainable agriculture students and graduate students. The site’s erstwhile prison administration building and warden’s cottage, a duplex, will be remodeled to serve as free or low-cost housing for students who are military veterans and their families. Students in the university’s masters of social work may also intern at the site in the clinical arena.
Whereas traditional farming, Hanmer said, is “high input,” employing chemicals and fossil fuels, sustainable agriculture focuses on mulching and composting, and veers away from monoculture — vast fields of a single crop.
“Conventional farming requires a lot of land and that requires a lot of money and unfortunately what’s happened is that it’s requiring more and more land to make a living,” said Hanmer. “Sustainable agriculture tends to be a small piece of land that you’re managing intensively and really getting a higher income per acre, and so it’s feasible. You can find an acre or a few acres of land to work with and you don’t have to have hundreds of acres.
“It’s something that is possible and doable for a person that doesn’t have a ton of money to invest — a person who is willing to work hard and learn how to do it. If you know how to provide and grow your own food there’s a certain amount of security in that, that you can provide at least something to eat. It’s also very rewarding to be able to do that and I think it’s empowering.”
Phase II and beyond
Beginning in March, the Environmental Protection Agency will begin performing a brownfields assessment of the Wagram prison site, scouting out soil contamination, lead paint, and asbestos, among the other toxic substances common in the 1920s.
The assessment will protect Growing Change from liabilities connected to existing environmental concerns, and give it a starting point from which to address them.
“Environmental liability is staggering — it’s expensive, it’s a very tough form of liability,” said Bob Rosen, EPA Region 4 brownfields project manager. “In this case, they can purchase the prison property or accept it from corrections, and they don’t inherit any of the environmental problems that may be there.”
Rosen said that the assessment is not driven by a desire to eliminate contaminants, but to insulate them from those that will be working in the prison’s buildings and interacting with its soil and groundwater.
“If corrections has a pretty good sense of what went on there, then the concerns, we move past them pretty quickly, and I think that’s what we’re seeing here,” said Rosen. “We are not an enforcement-driven program, it’s all about just moving properties forward.”
The assessment, funded by a $200,000 EPA grant, will also include a radar evaluation of the property, as holes in the prison’s history could conceal bodies buried there decades ago. The assessments are expected to be complete by August, when the N.C. State University design school will step in and begin the work of reimagining the disused prison buildings, guard towers, and chain-link fence.
“North Carolina at times is not considered perhaps the first state where national innovations are concerned, but we also have some unique assets,” Sanford said. “Our cooperative extension program is arguably the best in the nation; our public university system is arguably one of the best in the nation. Our integration is utilizing some of our unique assets and trying to deliver them in facilities that we are flipping from being the county’s most prominent environmental hazard into its most prominent environmental asset.”
Rosen said that the Wagram prison is the first in an EPA region composed of eight southeastern states to receive a brownfields assessment.
“Federally, EPA in this region, we’ve never done a prison before,” he said. “That’s what made this project so interesting and so exciting is that (Sanford) is taking a property that had one specific type of use and is going to repurpose it.”
Between May and August of next year, the Growing Change board and youth will make their final proposal to the Department of Public Safety. If accepted, ownership of the property will transfer to growingchange.org.
Phase 5, the organization’s capital campaign, is scheduled to begin in August 2015 and end in May 2016. Potential funding sources include university, cooperative extension, and juvenile justice grants, and Sanford said that the board is also working with a crowdfunding expert in California.
As scheduled, the implementation phase of the project is set to begin in May 2016.
Flipping their prisons
When they first picked up a spade at the Presbyterian church garden, several of the clinical group members had never been farther from Scotland County than Fayetteville. Their efforts to make Growing Change a reality have taken youth who had never set foot on a college campus to positions at the head of panel discussions at N.C. State, N.C. A&T State, and UNC-Pembroke.
“Our clinical model can be kind of boiled down to putting youth in structural positions where they can conceptualize themselves differently and, importantly from a cognitive behavioral point of view, they can practice being different,” said Sanford.
By putting literal tools in the hands of Scotland County youth, Sanford said, Growing Change hopes to place the county’s figurative future in the hands of those loyal to it.
“Right now our story for our region is being written by other people,” he said. “This is what we teach our guys: when other people write your story for you, they’re either going to get it wrong or they’re going to use it for their own purpose.”
Though still bright and still not without challenges, Smith realizes that his “whole thinking process is different” from that of the 12-year-old dragged by his mother into Sanford’s office. For Smith and the other clinical group members, their problems are never far from their minds. But the group itself has almost taken on Sanford’s role as therapist.
“In all the time that we’re in the van, we’re constantly talking about something that’s relevant or that can be used in our lives or how we did something wrong today when we were using tools — it’s always something productive,” Smith said. “Family issues, substance abuse, tobacco, school — pretty much anything that you can get in trouble with, we’ve talked about it.”
For the Scotland High School senior, it is now the fear of disappointing Sanford or his friends that keeps him trying to “stay clean.”
“As the group gets to a very real place with one another, the power of the therapist diminishes and instead it’s as if you have a group around you that’s designed to support and help you change, and that’s a powerful, powerful place,” said Sanford.
Smith hopes to graduate from high school and obtain a counseling-related degree, so that he may return to the site and hold a staff position. His newfound friends and ambitions have made the choice whether or not to stay out of trouble — and the consequences of bad choices — much more immediate.
“It’s just not a good look to be trying to do all of this stuff and then every time you turn around, you’re into something,” he said. “This is a small community; everybody reads the newspaper … . The people that I work with in the group, it’s like family. You don’t want to disappoint your family.”