Gangstas to Gardeners Gives Young Ex-Cons a New Future

An ambitious young activist uses local farming to help break the cycle of incarceration.


(Alf Ribeiro /

In recent years, there has been a global shift in the prison system worldwide. Prisons are being used less as punishment, and more as an opportunity for rehabilitation and education, helping inmates reenter society after their term is served.

Leading the innovative approach are Scandinavian prisons, which are designed for rehabilitation purposes, and therefore prisoners who are released tend to join society reformed.

“Norway has one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world at 20%. The US has one of the highest: 76.6% of prisoners are re-arrested within five years,” Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service, told the Guardian in 2014.

“Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: They have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us.”

A program in Atlanta, Georgia is now trying a page from Scandinavia’s book. Gangstas to Growers provides jobs for ex-cons working the land and earning an honest living. The initiative is led by Abiodun Henderson, who personally goes out to train people in how to teach the workers, and also teaches and mentors them, herself.

She says things like “Teamwork makes the dream work!” as she toils the ground. Henderson’s program trains previously incarcerated youth in how to harvest crops, and her program attracts people like Trent.

Trent, a father in his early 20s, was sure that after his time in prison, he would have no choice but to return to the streets. After hearing about Henderson's program, he discovered that not only could people like him get a job, they could even earn a decent, honest living, and so Trent enrolled in Gangstas to Growers.

Over 50 percent of incarcerated youth in the United States ends up back in prison within three years. Gangstas to Grower’s goal is to not only supply formerly incarcerated youth with paying jobs, but also provide them with important life skills, therapy, and tools to handle stressful situations and anger management.

The program is open to at-risk youth, gang members and formerly incarcerated individuals, to provide them with the skills and opportunity to earn an honest living. Trainees are mentored by local farmers through SWAG and West GA Farmers Cooperatives.

During their paid working hours, they also participate in yoga, political education, financial literacy, environmental responsibility, health/nutritional cooking classes, and group therapy sessions. The organization is partly self-sustainable thanks to the hot sauce they produce from the harvested crops. They also receive help from private funders including Spanx founder Sara Blakely.

Gangstas to Growers works with 18-24-year-olds. They start the day with yoga, followed by farm work. After that, they proceed to classes. They learn how to grow their own crops, as well as grow their own businesses. “I was so used to seeing death that I didn’t know how it’d feel to see something grow,” Trent said. “To see plants grow full of life, from something I control, it’s probably the best feeling in the world.”

It is too soon to tell exactly how effective Gangstas to Growers will be, but it is clear that this program gives these people purpose and renewed hope, and the opportunity to contribute legitimately to society and provide for themselves and their families.

Henderson wants to train at least 500 formerly incarcerated young Atlantans by 2025 and so far, she has definitely had a profound and positive impact on the lives of young people who are still at the beginning of their lives.

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