Skip to main content

Hydroponic gardens calm Rikers Island teen inmates

Wearing a white lab coat and a bow tie as wide as his smile, Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CUCE)-New York City extension associate Philson Warner was relieved Dec. 15 to hear running water after a weekend power outage as he entered his Hydroponics Learning Model (HLM) program for teen inmates at the Rikers Island jail.

That meant that nutrient-rich water was pumping and nourishing the sweet basil, bok choi and other plants. But upon noticing a once verdant garden emerging from a maze of white plastic pipes decimated to a few survivors, his smile faded.

"It's a shame because the plants were thriving," said Warner in his Trinidadian lilt. As he inspected the remains in the lab at one of the world's largest correctional facilities, 18-year-old Thomas Brown, an inmate studying at the facility's Island Academy, showed off a surviving basil plant.

Aquaculture and hydroponics flourish
in Big Apple's high schools, too

In six 800-gallon tanks, 6,000 fish are being raised in a lab at the old Park West High School, part of a five-school campus on West 50th Street in Manhattan's Hell Kitchen. Two stories above, dozens of fluorescent lights fuel the growth of an indoor hydroponics vegetable and herb garden.

These projects are part of a growing collaboration between Cornell University Cooperative Extension (CUCE)-New York City and schools. Beginning this past fall students and teachers have been learning to tend to the fish as part of the Living Environment curriculum. Philson Warner, an extension associate with CUCE-NYC, set up the programs over the summer. Both labs use technology invented by Warner.

"The fish will be for eating," says Warner, showing off his tilapia of all sizes and colors. "This is a very versatile, hardy species that is relatively easy to grow with the right technology." He expects the technology will help the school labs eventually produce 16,000 pounds of tilapia every nine months or so.

Much of the fish and vegetables raised already goes to the Food and Finance High School, one of the schools housed in the complex, and their culinary arts program.

"The culinary classes cooked a special meal for all the students, and over 800 sampled the food," says Warner, who also runs an after-school hydroponics and aquaculture program for up to 50 students. "And most of them went back for seconds."

In February, the school plans to open a small store at the high school to sell fish and produce to the public. Warner hopes to build a hydroponic/aquaculture greenhouse on top of the building by 2010.

"Crush it in your hands, smell it," Brown said. "When you eat it, the taste is fresher."

For the last three years on Rikers Island, Warner has been nurturing the HLM program that he developed and has run for more than two decades through CUCE. Starting with three classrooms in 2007, he now oversees eight self-contained labs in the facility's two high schools. He has trained 15 teachers to use the labs to help teach students subjects from science, technology and agriculture to nutrition and English vocabulary.

Christine Schmidt, supervisor of social workers for New York City public schools, brings rehabilitative programs to Rikers Island, which houses some 17,000 inmates in 10 prisons across the East River from LaGuardia Airport. She first heard about Warner and his hydroponic program at a CUCE workshop several years ago.

"I thought what a fabulous academic experience," Schmidt said.

Convinced that the labs, with their heads of lettuce sprouting out of white tubes, would benefit inmate-students, she sold Warner on starting a program at Rikers Island. But budget woes, intensive teacher training and getting the right equipment to build the hydroponics labs threatened the program.

"I knew it was going to be difficult," Schmidt said. "First off everything on the list was contraband." Glass fish tanks, for example, weren't allowed, so Warner enlisted plastic ones. The metal chains supporting overhanging lights weren't allowed either; plastic ties had to make do.

After much trial and error, the program launched in May 2007. Warner now visits the prison each quarter, passing through six security checkpoints each time, to check on the labs, provide teacher support and interact with students. Last year more than 320 students participated in the program.

"When we first proposed HLM, people thought that the students would just destroy the labs," Schmidt said. But over the past two years, Warner found the opposite to be true. "Instead they take pride in the vegetables, they care for them and nurture them," he said, smiling.

Schmidt added that teachers claim the soothing sounds of water, the greenery in the environment and even the smell of produce have helped create a better environment to rehabilitate the inmates.

"It is calming and healing and fosters nurturing feelings," she said.

At Horizon Academy, across the island, the bok choi in Bertha Kurmen's class was ready to be harvested in time for a pre-holiday break celebration. Kurmen uses the program to teach a host of subjects. "I use it as a tool in all content areas," she said.

Surveying the garden, Warner said: "You should harvest it right now." Then he added a cooking tip: "You can just steam it with water. It will taste wonderful."

Amanda Angel '03 is a freelance writer in New York City.

Media Contact

Sabina Lee