RAIFORD, Fla. — On many a flowered stretch of Florida highway median blooms the work of convicted killers, armed robbers and habitual thieves.
The blossoms are the progeny of Union Correctional Institute, which boasts that its horticulture therapy program is the oldest, biggest and best behind bars.
Inside the high steel fences and coils of barbed wire, beefy killers with ferocious tattoos tend the pale lavender orchids. Robbers and check forgers prune the rosebushes and inspect the hibiscus buds.
Once their time is done, Union gardeners move easily from the big house to the greenhouse.
"The training is very valuable. These inmates are readily hired by nurserymen and growers when they are released," said Jim Miller, education supervisor at the maximum-security prison. "The nurserymen are almost competing with each other to get our graduates."
Union has a reputation as a dumping ground, the place to send prisoners who prove troublesome at Florida's other penal institutions. Some of its 1,900 inmates have committed heinous crimes. Fights among them are frequent.
"People die in here. You have a lot of inmates that have a lot of time. They're not looking to get out any time soon. They don't have a lot to lose," said horticulture supervisor Ken Gaskill.
The program was begun 27 years ago with the hope that putting the prisoners to work with the bromeliads would mellow them out. "Tending plants can be very therapeutic. It can calm you down, give you a whole new outlook in caring for a growing, living thing," said Miller.
Garden therapy is so highly regarded that prisons in 37 states now operate some type of garden. Other prisons have bigger and older food gardens or crop programs, but Union was the first prison to specialize in ornamental plants.
The 135 prisoners in Union's horticulture program attend eight-hour classes two days a week and work in the greenhouses and nurseries or on the grounds the rest of the time. By completing the courses and passing written tests, they can earn state vocational certificates that improve their job prospects when they leave prison.
"This has opened up a whole new life for me," said Ken Odum, a prisoner serving time for three armed robbery convictions. "Before I came in here I didn't know anything about plants, didn't really care. Now I wouldn't be happy doing anything else. It's something that when I get outside I'd like to look into."
Union has four large greenhouses, an indoor nursery and an outdoor nursery with 75 acres and more than 200 varieties of plants. "We have more diversity than most botanical gardens, and probably the greatest collection of show orchids anywhere," Miller said.
Unlike commercial nurseries, there is no pressure to produce quickly maturing plants that can move rapidly into the marketplace. If there's one thing the prisoners have plenty of, it's time.
The program was begun with the help of the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs, whose 26,000 members now support garden therapy programs at seven Florida prisons.
"Union was our first endeavor. We asked each member of the federation to give a nickel, and raised enough money to build the first greenhouse," said Ellen Noll, state chairman of the federation's penal garden therapy program.
Club members provide the prisoners with cuttings, seeds, fertilizer, tools, books and used pots.
"Some of the garden club ladies correspond with the inmates, and a lot of clubs take tours through the prison greenhouses," Miller added.
The prisoners study landscape planning as well. A trusted few are occasionally permitted to leave the grounds--under guard--to install their handiwork at a variety of public buildings. They also supply the seeds used in Florida's highway beautification projects.
"You can't go anywhere in Florida and not see the effects of this program," Gaskill said.
The effects are also apparent on the prison grounds. In the yard outside the main housing area is a spectacular display of bright orange tiger lilies, yellow marigolds, purple bachelor buttons and purple and white zinnias.
"It's kind of hard to go into a nice area like this and feel bad. We try to keep flowers here all the time. At least they can look out these windows and see things that are nice," Gaskill said.