A charity has teamed up with the Ministry of Justice to ‘green’ the UK’s prisons, a project that is reaping rewards for inmates and the environment
Birds singing; apples glistening on trees in the sunshine. It’s not a scene most of us would associate with prisons. But that’s exactly what those at The Orchard Project charity hope to achieve. It’s partnering with the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) in a bid to create a well-maintained orchard in every prison in England and Wales.
Given that the MOJ is the second largest government landowner, the scheme has the potential to deliver real environmental benefits, says Dan Hasler, the charity’s project manager for Greater Manchester. As well as absorbing climate- heating carbon dioxide through trees’ leaves and fruit, local orchards provide tasty fresh produce without the need for polluting transport – “a real saving considering [more than] 80 per cent of our fruit is imported into the UK,” Hasler says.
Orchards also represent a refuge for wildlife, he notes, while fruit that falls to the ground encourages the growth of mycorrhizal fungi in soil. These fungi enable plants to draw in more water and nutrients, as well as helping trees to sequester even more carbon.
Alex Boscarino, land-based activities manager at Manchester’s Thorn Cross Prison, has seen these ecological gains firsthand since an orchard was planted there in 2016. “We find it brings in more of a diverse variety of birds and insects, as well as working really well in a symbiotic way with the wildflowers we grow,” he says.
But it has yielded plentiful rewards for inmates too. It’s a chance to learn pruning and grafting skills, or even get qualifications that can help them find jobs upon release – and make them less likely to reoffend, Boscarino adds. Meanwhile, some have the opportunity to earn a small wage, by being ‘employed’ to look after the orchard.
The impact on their wellbeing has been huge, Boscarino says. “The men [at Thorn Cross] often have mental health issues, so by giving them the responsibility of looking after the orchard, it gives them a purpose and a sense of achievement. It’s their own area. We say to them: ‘This is for you to look after’. And from time to time, they can see the progress – the impact that their loving and caring [is having] on the trees.”
They have enjoyed the literal fruits of their labours too, which include four varieties of apple – three eaters and one for cooking – as well as three types of pear, plus plums and cherries. In addition to vegetables grown on-site and eggs provided by 300 hens, the orchard also makes it easier to provide the men with nutritious meals. Cuts in government spending have left prisons with a daily food budget of just £2.02 per inmate.
The project to create an orchard in every prison is fully funded by the MOJ, and staff from around 30 prisons across England and Wales have so far been trained in how to plant and care for an orchard. The project is likely to continue for several years, until its goal is reached.
Hasler has trained MOJ staff from at least a dozen prisons in the north-west in planning their orchards, and he enjoyed showing inmates at Thorn Cross how to care for their fruit trees. “The lads really wanted to learn and get stuck in, and there was a lot of fun, a lot of banter,” he says.
He became enamoured with orchards in 2010, after coming up with the idea of planting one on the site of a demolished bus depot in Manchester’s Moss Side. It ended up producing a community cider called Moss Cider. The relationship between orchards and communities as a symbiotic one, he says. “Orchards need people to thrive. It’s not just about planting – it’s the annual pruning and much more. But also, even your toughest prisoner needs the benefit of being outdoors in nature.”
Higher-security prisons present challenges: “They have less green space, and tall trees [can create] a climbing risk”. But Hasler is eager to show MOJ staff creative ways to bring the vision of an orchard in every prison to fruition, perhaps by planting small trees against walls, or by growing them in layers or horizontally as low ‘stepover’ trees.
This could help more inmates like Sydneywho says he is thankful for the orchard at Thorn Cross. “I never thought I would be doing this type of work in a prison setting: planting apple trees, grafting, pruning, growing vegetables and looking after chickens. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Main image: Sophia Carey