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Made Here

A garden program in Maine helps incarcerated people feed themselves and others

An organic farmer in Maine sets out to transform the prison food system.

Many incarcerated people across the U.S. are fed unhealthy food, without a fresh fruit or vegetable in sight. That included at Mountain View Correctional Facility in Maine for many years.

Then, one organic farmer set out to transform that model with fresh food in 2018 — a process that also transformed the incarcerated people who benefited.

The new documentary Seeds of Change: Breaking Free from the Prison Food Machine captures the story of the farmer, Mark McBrine, and several incarcerated men who planted enormous garden plots on five acres of land outside the prison.

The film premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel at 8 p.m. on Thursday, April 18 as part of the Made Here series. And it's available now on demand.

Vermont Public's Mary Williams Engisch spoke to Maine-based filmmaker Max Armstrong, who directed Seeds of Change. Their conversation below has been edited and condensed for time and clarity. This interview was produced for the ear. We highly recommend listening to the audio. We’ve also provided a transcript, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Mary Williams Engisch: First off, I'd love to know how you came to this particular project.

Max Armstrong: Yeah, I had recently moved to Maine, was working in Maine, and I really wanted to tell a Maine story. And I was asking everyone, "Give me a Maine story. I'm looking for a Maine story."

One day, I was reading some articles, and I came across this story about a prison in Maine with a five-acre regenerative garden. And I couldn't get the story out of my head. And I thought, well, they're never gonna let me in; prisons are notoriously difficult to get access to.

A person wtih facial hair and ear-length curly brown hair smiles.
Max Armstrong, courtesy
Maine-based filmmaker Max Armstrong directed and produced the documentary, "Seeds of Change" about a regenerative agriculture program at a prison facility in Maine.

So I thought, well, you know, I'll find another one. But I couldn't get the story out of my head. And after about a week, I thought, let me just try to reach out, get a hold of the farmer. And they'll say no, and then I can move on. And I got a hold of that farmer, Mark McBrine.

And he got me in touch with Commissioner Randall Liberty, the Commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections. And I spoke to Randall for about 15 minutes. And he said, 'Well, I'm in charge of the entire Maine Department of Corrections. And I like you. And I want to tell the story. So we're going to give you full access to all of our facilities. And I'm in charge, so that means everyone has to let you in.' And so that's how it started.

Mary Williams Engisch: Oh my gosh, and you said that you couldn't get it out of your head initially. What do you think appealed to you about this particular story?

Max Armstrong: Well, nearly 50% of Americans have a close family member who has been incarcerated. I have several. So incarceration has touched my life personally. And I also believe in the power of a wholesome meal. And so those two ideas really came together in this story.

And I just didn't know if there was going to be somebody else out there who's going to take this deep dive and spend the amount of time and energy and effort to tell a story about a garden. It felt like a unique story for me to tell.

Mary Williams Engisch: And why did the farmer, Mark McBrine, decide to launch the organic food program at Mountain View?

Max Armstrong: Mark is a lifelong organic farmer, regenerative farmer. And so these are the kinds of meals that he's provided to his family for his whole life. From the very beginning, he knew he wanted to work his way into the kitchen and take over the culinary program there. And in 2018, he was finally able to convince them to give him control of the garden operations over there. And that's how the program started.

Mary Williams Engisch: It's probably something that most of us really don't think about every day, but can you describe how impactful food is in the prison system generally?

Max Armstrong: It's enormously impactful. And, you know, prison food is one of those things where it's become this sort of comic relief. You know, we joke about it. We talk about prison food, prison slop. But I don't think it's an issue that we really think critically about, at least I didn't until I started making this film.

And I realized this is a real problem. Mealtime — that's the time during an incarcerated person's day where there's any opportunity to be any sort of variety, or really any sort of joy, in their day. Other than eating, your day is pretty rote. It's pretty routine. Same thing day in day out food, it's an opportunity to provide wellness dignity, meaning into an incarcerated person's life.

Mary Williams Engisch: And you mentioned that you were granted pretty much full access into the prison while making this documentary. And you filmed some of the portions inside the kitchen area, the cafeteria where they're prepping all the food, and then also outdoors where the men were working, you know, hands in the soil in these organic gardens.

I'd love to know, was there a difference in the inmates between the spaces when they're indoors and when they're outside in the gardens?

Max Armstrong: Absolutely. And I think that's one of the major reasons why the garden crew, why those guys volunteer for those positions. You know, nobody's forced to work out in the garden. There's a big difference between working in, you know, a prison farm, forced labor, and this sort of work, which is voluntary work. And the guys choose to go out there and do it because they want to be out in nature, and they want to have their hands in the dirt.

And they want to have an opportunity to provide something to the other residents in the facility. I think that's something that really shines through in my interviews and in the film was that there's a lot of pride for being able to provide something that makes other people's lives better.

Mary Williams Engisch: What did you find out about the impact that this garden project has had on the recidivism rate at the main prison?

Max Armstrong: Well, I know, just, and, you know, I'm not an expert on these statistics, but I think Maine's recidivism rate is like 50%, somewhere around 50% lower than the national average. I would say that speaks to Maine's practices, you know, that these these programs are working, right? And that these are people who they're going to be our neighbors again, right, so we want them to succeed. So we want to give them an opportunity to learn skills, whether they're skills out in the garden, whether their culinary skills, right?

But more importantly, we just want to treat them like humans, right? We don't want to take away their fundamental human rights. I don't know, I think that when you lose that, it makes it a lot more difficult to gain your footing when you get out of prison.

Mary Williams Engisch: I noticed in the film credits that it mentions that last year, every single facility in the Maine Department of Corrections had planned to implement this regenerative ag program. Did that come to pass in 2023?

Max Armstrong: Yeah, Mark is working on it. Mark McBrine is now in charge of all of the garden programs, all the agricultural programs at all five DOC (Department of Corrections) facilities.

It's a lot more complex when you are in a maximum security unit where you have a lot more restrictions and regulations on the tools you can use, you have a lot less space. And so I think those are challenges that they're overcoming as they, as they develop this program further.

Mary Williams Engisch: Wow, that's so cool. If we can document positive effects from these types of programs, like this regenerative agriculture program in the prison system, why aren't they the norm in more prison systems across the country?

Max Armstrong: They used to be. There used to be prison gardens back in the '70s. It was a lot more common to see a prison garden.

I think a lot of these programs were done away with by politicians and figures who said, well, prison is supposed to be punishing, and so we shouldn't have programs that that give people any semblance of meaning or wellness or dignity.

That's a tough barrier to overcome, that there are people out there who think that prison should be solely punishing. What I'd say to that is that, well, the loss of your liberty and the separation from your family, that is the punishment. But a decent meal — that's a human right.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Seeds of Change premieres on Vermont Public's main TV channel on Thursday, April 18 at 8:00 p.m. and is available now on demand.

Mary Williams Engisch is a local host on All Things Considered.