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Like many gardeners, Chris Anthony can tell you that November is the month for cleaning up and making plans. The tomatoes and corn may be long since picked, but there is dead foliage to clear away, seeds to be ordered and new garden beds to be plotted.

But Mr. Anthony is not like many gardeners. The 29-year-old arrived at the Pacific Institution in Abbotsford last spring to serve a minimum seven-year sentence for second-degree murder. He became interested in the prison's unique horticulture program after going to one of the greenhouses to select two plants for his cell, and seeing other inmates at work.

Mr. Anthony, a former construction worker from northern B.C., says that despite being completely new to gardening, he has spent every spare moment in the prison's vegetable patches and greenhouses.

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"There's a lot more science than I thought there'd be," he says. "But now I see it as my garden. I have a set number of things I would like to see done and Ryan has things he'd like to see done. We'll have to compromise."

Ryan is Ryan Frisbee, the Pacific Institution's registered horticultural therapist who runs one of Correctional Service Canada's most innovative treatment programs. Many other Canadian prisons have gardens, and inmates who work in them and find the work rewarding, but this is the only one to formally employ a specialist as part of its therapy regime.

The Abbotsford prison, which is also an assessment and rehab centre, houses minimum, medium and maximum-security prisoners, all of whom can participate in the program if they meet the requirements. Inmates have to display a minimum of four weeks of good behaviour to take part. There is a waiting list.

As many gardeners can attest, the act of nurturing the soil and growing plants can be a meditative, calming experience. Duly noting these benefits, horticultural therapists see gardening as a way for individuals sick in body and mind to heal and socialize with others, as well as improving their surroundings. Hospitals and mental institutions also make use of therapeutic horticultural programs.

Until 1999, the Pacific Institution - like many other Canadian prisons - had one staff member to take care of the grounds and encourage inmate involvement in the gardens. It was decided to formalize the arrangement by splitting the job in two, with the therapy aspect given greater weight.

Mr. Frisbee, 34, applied for this new job from Guelph, Ont., thinking he'd be working at a regional health centre. He was surprised to find that the Pacific Institution is a prison. He won the position and six years later he is still there.

"I didn't know what I would have to offer men in prison, but once I got past that I found I could tailor programs [to suit]offenders [according to their abilities]"

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He works with any of the 380 inmates referred to the program, whether a "regular" offender, a patient at the psychiatric hospital or a sex offender. Whether the inmate's assessment takes a few hours or months, the calming influence of plants has become a vital part of the rehab process for some inmates.

"It is not a drop-in," Mr. Frisbee said. "If you are generating specific treatment goals, you can't say: 'Joe Blow is smiling more and loves geraniums.' It's much more than that."

Mr. Frisbee has 16 inmates in his caseload, but had more during the summer months. He works with the prisoners, either one-on-one or as part of a team, observes their behaviour and reports to their caseworkers.

Tony Baldo, acting clinical team leader in the rehab unit, said horticulture provides a place "for guys who haven't found a niche" in the institution.

"In terms of commitment, for someone with a heroin addiction for 20 years, two hours a day in the garden is a huge thing," he said. "I've heard nothing but good from the inmates."

The costs, Mr. Baldo added, are low for a prison program; apart from Mr. Frisbee's salary, the prison has spent about $600 this year on equipment and seeds. There was also the cost of building three greenhouses a few years ago, but prisoners provided the labour.

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"Horticulture provides them with a sense of purpose," Mr. Baldo said.

Mr. Frisbee said he particularly remembers the transformation of one inmate.

"He was very anti-social. Self-harming, obnoxious, an objectionable person who made very little eye contact. For several months he hardly spoke to me, but gradually he developed an interest and got to the point where he could work on his own, and hold longer conversations."

By the time the prisoner completed his sentence in 2002, Mr. Frisbee said the change was extraordinary.

"He had an amazing work ethic. . . . He had developed an interest in grape growing and on his release he moved to the Okanagan and started working part-time in a vineyard. He came to me the day before he got out and told me that I would never know how much I'd done for him."

Such triumphs make up for the times that Mr. Frisbee has had "people laugh in my face."

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"I explain [to outsiders]that we use the outdoor environment to develop a relationship. Some people think it's just junk, a bit of West Coast tree hugging, but then they've never seen it," he said, adding: "It's called the correctional system, not the punitive system. You can treat inmates like animals, but that is what you'll get back."

Joy Harrison, of the American Horticultural Therapy Association, said many prisons have found that gardening is a useful outlet for inmates. About 15 per cent of U.S. prisons employ horticultural therapy and there are dozens of formal programs around the world.

She noted that prisons were part of the origins of horticultural therapy, along with hospitals and mental institutions. Prisoners have been responsible for growing their own food for hundreds of years, she said, and prison staff noticed that inmates would become better integrated when they were occupied with their plants.Mr. Anthony says his gardening has been extremely helpful.

"I get upset if I can't get out there. I find it's relaxing and I can think about other things. Now I'm ready to start the violent-offenders program, which wasn't the case before I took this up."

He particularly likes the fact that the produce grown at the prison is given to local food banks and women's shelters. This year, the Pacific Institution's harvest resulted in almost 1,600 kilograms of donated produce.

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