Hollesley Bay: Inside the walls of the prison garden - a haven for inmates

The Greener Growth gardening project at Hollesley Bay prison.
Jo Metcalfe who runs the project.

The Greener Growth gardening project at Hollesley Bay prison. Jo Metcalfe who runs the project. - Credit: Archant

Gardening with a difference, this week, as Steven Russell visits a Suffolk prison where the power of nature is proving to be a force for good.

The Greener Growth gardening project at Hollesley Bay prison.
Jo Metcalfe and Mel Clitherow who run

The Greener Growth gardening project at Hollesley Bay prison. Jo Metcalfe and Mel Clitherow who run the project. - Credit: Archant

Simon, face turned towards the sun, looks very content. Not bad, considering he’s doing time. “To come here, this is heaven,” he smiles.

It’s a good description. HMP Hollesley Bay might still be a prison but it’s a million miles from the category B/C edifice where he’d been locked up for three years.

There’s more to it, though, than leaving behind the clanking doors and jangling key-chains of a higher-security jail. For Hollesley Bay, an “open” prison, is harnessing the healing power of nature.

Since the spring it’s been working with Suffolk-based group Greener Growth to revive a walled garden at the jail, helping prisoners tend vegetable patches and teaching inmates how they can grow their own food (and save money!) when they’re released. Help people live fulfilling lives, the philosophy goes, and you reduce the chance of them getting into trouble again.

The Greener Growth gardening project at Hollesley Bay prison.

The Greener Growth gardening project at Hollesley Bay prison. - Credit: Archant

Simon (not his real name) thinks how different all this is to the prison where he was held until spring.

“You couldn’t imagine, there, what you’re thinking now, with nature around you. My family can see the difference in me. My mother said seeing me happy, being here, made her better, because she was all depressed with this B/C-cat situation. But seeing me here, they’re over the moon.”

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For the prison, it’s something of a return to its roots – no pun intended.

Hollesley Bay opened as a Borstal just before the start of the Second World War and until about eight years ago was well known for running a 1,800-acre farm. Then changes to the way the justice system was operated shifted the focus and the farm went.

Now, things are changing again.

Greener Growth has since April been working with the prison to turn its 10,000 square feet walled garden from “unproductive chaos” to an orderly allotment system, complete with composting unit and a large herb bed. Plans for crops were drawn up, and a dozen or so prisoners are taking responsibility – voluntarily – for tending the vegetable patches day by day.

There are chickens, too, at Hollesley – the coops made by inmates. It’s smallish scale at the moment, but they might go into egg production at some point in the future, if food regulations don’t prove too much of an obstacle.

On the agenda, also, are cookery classes – chutney and pickles first on the list. Simon applied to be one of the prisoners working in the gardens as soon as he was transferred to the jail near Woodbridge. (The job includes flowerbeds and grounds on the other side of the wall.) While waiting for that role to be sorted out, he was given one of the vegetable plots to use – and has seized the opportunity.

Over the months he’s grown beans, courgettes, tomatoes, coriander, spinach and broad beans. Simon’s also been looking after a bed with tomatoes, potatoes and peppers. In one of the vast prison greenhouses he’s grown, from seed, cabbages, carrots and onions.

In fact, the efforts of all the men with allotment strips have been paying off. He tells of pizza-type creations made with courgettes and onions grown on-site, plus fresh garlic from the prison garden and some cheese. “Put the ingredients on pitta bread, toasted them, lovely!”

“It’s so peaceful and lovely here. A lot of the guys have got their plots but because they are out working all day until seven at night” – more than 100 prisoners are each day out working in the community – “we look after it for them as well. It passes the time and is good for your mind.”

Mel Clitherow, head of efforts to reduce reoffending, doesn’t need convincing of the benefits. She can hear it in the way the men talk about their vegetable-growing. That passion – those skills learned and the positivity enjoyed – can only bode well when they’re released.

“Twelve men going out could be 12 men who decide not to go on and commit crime, because they’re involved in something better,” says Mel. “The cost of living is expensive. If you’ve not cooked for yourself, if you’ve not understood fresh ingredients before, this is a perfect way to show the men how they can adapt their living environment. It’s skills; it’s ownership. Men can go out and feel they can be more self-sufficient, or perhaps that they have skills they can teach their children about where food comes from.”

Most prisoners are at Hollesley for between one and two years, so any involved in gardening should experience a full cycle of the seasons and taste the fruits of their labours.

Many hail from the capital, but Mel says that’s no obstacle to growing one’s own food. “It’s very easy to say ‘I live in London; I’ve only got a flat. I haven’t got the space,’ but Jo talks about growing in boxes that go on walls.” Ah, Joannah Metcalfe – founder of Greener Growth, a natural health therapist when she’s not out getting her hands dirty, and something of a human dynamo. Jo worked with prisoners at HMP Blundeston, near Lowestoft – helping them grow their own food – and reports that offenders within Blundeston’s “therapeutic community” (people with personality disorders, essentially) grew in self-confidence, and behaviour changed for the better. When Blundeston shut around the turn of the year, a number of them were moved to Warren Hill Prison – sister jail to Hollesley. (They successfully brought with them an orchard of about 20 trees: apple, pear, plum and cherry!)

Jo hopes to start working at Warren Hill. In the meantime she approached Hollesley Bay, keen to keep the momentum rolling, and was encouraged that supportive governor Declan Moore was in on the first meeting. He wanted to be clear about what the group sought to achieve, and no doubt wanted to check they weren’t “airy-fairy hippies skipping through the daisies”, she laughs. A therapist for 25 years, she recognises the benefits of the great outdoors. “I could have a whole day with people who were quite severely depressed and I’d go outside for half an hour, in my garden – do a bit of weeding or maybe harvest some food – and I’d feel totally at peace.

“There’s something about contact with nature. If you look at all the problems we have in society, it seems they’re more dramatic the further disconnected we are from nature and the natural rhythms of life.” There are big dreams: to secure grants to revive a couple of big glasshouses, which could see the growing of cash crops and more food for the prison kitchen.

Bigger still, and more long-term, is Jo’s ambition to start their first community enterprise farm somewhere in Suffolk – the ideal place for prisoners to take and use their skills after release, assuming they’re able to live in the county. It would also help other disadvantaged groups – not just ex-offenders.

You wouldn’t bet against it happening, if the funding can be found. Jo’s not backward in coming forward for a cause she believes in. This morning, for instance, she’s arrived with strawberry seeds, after sweet-talking a bank into giving her a handful of packets of its promotional giveaway.

Such an opportunist… “Yes! I’ve got very used to asking. And, if that doesn’t work, I‘m not averse to begging!”