Planting Seeds in Prison: Rehabilitation by Gardening

A few weeks ago we had the chance to spend the day with Paul Bruns, founder of Hlumelelisa, a non-profit that works with prison inmates to train them in horticulture and gardening as a way to contribute to their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The need to heal and renew the spirit underpins the principles of Hlumelelisa, and is reflected in its name which is the Nguni word for “a new spirit”.

The initiative, a 10-month program, embraces permaculture principles, focusing on water management and seed conservation for a sustainable approach to gardening – whether the output is a flower garden, vegetables, an orchard, a nursery, or a combination thereof.

Hlumelelisa has a presence in various correctional facilities around Johannesburg. There are currently seven programs underway, three with short-term inmates (inmates who have approximately two years left to their sentence), one program with inmates who have long-term sentences, one in a female prison, one in a juvenile prison, and one group working with at-risk youth. Many of these students have gone on to be employed in the horticultural industry.

We were lucky to spend the day with Hlumelelisa’s founder, Paul. He emanates confidence, happiness, and calmness. He knows everyone, greets each person with his full attention and enthusiasm, and makes it seem easy to pull off everything he does in what is in fact a series of very challenging contexts.

We visited three prisons, seeing the space Hlumelelisa has to work with in each location. One location had the program participants, in their orange jumpsuits, at work in the garden when we arrived. Not sure what to expect, I was moved almost to tears when they welcomed us by quietly putting down their tools, forming a circle which included us, and singing a song in what I presumed to be a common South African dialect. That location’s trainer and one of the inmates then proudly showed us their caravan-turned-classroom (modest but bigger than the apartment we lived in in New York!).

All participants are required to participate “full-time” (mornings in correctional facilities, and full days for the at-risk youth). About 100 individuals go through the prison programs per year, and as living proof of the change the program produces, many of the trainers are ex-inmates that they themselves went through the program previously. Furthermore, with a national recidivism of approximately 80%, Hlumelelisa can be proud of the fact that by its best estimates, its “alumni” come closer to the 15% mark!

Funding comes from a variety of sources including corporates, private individuals and foundations.

Each prison location we visited was different, adapted to its environment, and intended to provide inmates with a project they could be proud of and could easily replicate once they were out. Materials used were recuperated from scrap piles and harnessed creativity to turn them into beautiful examples of vertical farming (see photo with recycled plastic bottles, coming soon), and proof that with a little tender love and care, it is possible to grow beauty and bounty anywhere.

All the training centers provide saplings to non-profits and orphanages for free, alongside donations of any vegetables and fruit which are produced. Program participants are thereby reminded of the importance of community, an integral aspect of successful rehabilitation.

It all started because Paul wanted to plant trees and was hoping to convince the manager of one prison to let him work with inmates so as to plant more trees. Then he saw how bored inmates were and as he walked into his meeting, his vision changed. Today, he heads an organization with 15 employees – a majority of whom are ex-inmates who went through earlier version of the program – and objectively improves the lives of about 100 inmates a year, not counting the orphanages and at-risk youth.

Just spending a day with Paul was inspiring, as between visits he regaled us with incredible stories of his travels and adventures – from meeting a healer on a mountain near Lesotho to a ten-day silent meditation retreat in Nepal. So if you or anyone you know is interested in visiting South Africa and volunteering with Hlumelelisa, let us know and we will connect you to the organization!