As the sunshine has finally arrived, it’s the perfect time to find out what’s going on over in The Clink gardens at HMP Send. We caught up with Gary Gates, our General Manager Trainer for the Clink Gardens, to find out what a typical day looks like,  what we’re growing in the gardens this year and how he’s helping our prisoners in training to learn about horticulture.

What’s your role at The Clink?

I am the General Manager Trainer for the Clink Gardens which means I oversee the day to day running of the training project. This includes teaching, training, assessing, supervising the building /maintaining our resources (polytunnels, irrigation systems, outside beds) stock-taking and ordering necessary supplies, harvesting produce and collating orders for restaurant delivery, chicken care and egg collection. There are also numerous non project-related tasks to manage, such as offering a sympathetic ear to our prisoner students who are going through a tough time due to personal issue/family issues, mediation between students who have had a disagreement and attending support meetings for students with mental health issues. In summary, my role consists of being a manager, inventor, agony aunt, disciplinarian, role model and gardener.

Describe a typical day.

The day normally starts with a chat. Fred, my colleague employed by the prison service and myself will take a brief walk around our extensive work area to plan the day’s activities. We take into account the weather, time of year, outstanding tasks in the nursery (seasonally dictated, obviously), the training opportunities that they present and number of students expected that day.

Working in the environment in which we work requires us to be very flexible. There could be issues within the prison as far as regimes go. There could be disagreements within the work party that need addressing and of course we have the seasons and periods of inclement weather to be considered. All this means that we have to adapt our work plan constantly.

What fruit, vegetables and herbs are growing in the gardens this year?

Every year we try to grow some things that are a bit more “out there”. It introduces students to plants/crops that they may have never known and keeps everyone’s interest piqued. This year’s specials are The “Yard Long” asparagus beans, salsify/scorzonera and tomatillos (a Mexican berry-like plant related to the cape gooseberry used for salsas.) We have a few types of edible flowers again this year because it always gets a surprised reaction from the students…….. “A flower that you can eat?!”

What have you learnt from working with prisoners?

I have been working in prisons for over 12 years. I have worked with young offenders, men and now women. In my experience, there is no such thing as bad people, just troubled people who have made poor life decisions. I truly believe that with patience, guidance, training and the right support a person can literally turn their lives around. You are never too old or too far gone to break out of these destructive cycles.

What are the main challenges you face in your position?

Working in this environment presents many challenges. Firstly, there are all the expected challenges of running a working nursery. This includes repairs to resources such as leaky irrigation systems and tears to the poly tunnels, not missing seasonal planting windows, pest/disease control, sourcing materials on a limited budget and ensuring quality of produce.

Next is maintaining the quality of the teaching. This means record keeping, marking portfolios, listening to student feedback and constantly finding ways to keep the training relevant, up to date with industry standards and above all interesting for the students. I have a quote. It goes something like: “ If you want to teach a group of people to build a boat, you do not start with a pile of wood and a plan. You must first instil a love of the sea”. That pretty much sums it up for me. My job as a teacher is not only to teach but also to inspire, to create a desire to learn in the student, to pass on my passion for Horticulture.

Lastly I have to manage people with some pretty serious behavioural issues. I work with people who are struggling with mental health issues and often very few social skills. Managing those issues along with maintaining an acceptable level of productivity can be enormously frustrating at times. The key is to remain flexible, calm, sympathetic, resolute, consistent and good humoured. A sense of humour is essential.

What’s the most rewarding part of your job?

Seeing students have a “eureka” moment from eating  fruit/vegetables they’ve never eaten before, to getting the gardening bug and becoming fascinated with horticulture in general. There are always little victories along the way with every single student. I love the fact that the Clink Gardens can literally change people’s lives for the better. Knowing that I had a hand in facilitating that positive change is incredibly rewarding and satisfying.

What’s been your highlight moment since you joined The Clink?

There have been a lot of little moments. Every student who completes the course is rewarding to me in some way but I have to say that I particularly enjoyed being at the Woking Food Festival in September 2017. I was there to highlight the Clink Gardens and the produce that we grow for the restaurants. I handed out hundreds of curry spice sample bags (all grown by the students) which contained coriander seed, fresh ginger, chillies, garlic and kaffir lime leaves. I very much enjoyed talking to people about what we have achieved and where we would like to develop further. The reactions were incredibly positive.