Youth Are Flipping an Abandoned North Carolina Prison into a Sustainable Farm

Curated Story
Growing Change
This article originally appeared on Civil Eats

On a crisp, windy day in March, 17-year-old Norman Garcia-Lopez tries to coax a donkey and a herd of 14 sheep from a fenced yard out to open pasture. “Come on, Miss Easter,” he says, holding a shallow bowl of food under the donkey’s nose. She steps through the door in the chain-link fence, and her fleecy charges follow soon after, bleating.

Garcia-Lopez isn’t on a typical farm. Surrounded by tall fences and razor wire, he and the group of high-school-aged young men affiliated with the nonprofit Growing Change are farming in an abandoned prison in rural Wagram, North Carolina. Since 2011, this group has been working to flip the Scotland Correctional Center—a facility decommissioned in 2001 and subsequently left to decay—into a sustainable farm and education center. They’re leasing the property at no cost from the state’s Department of Public Safety.

Growing Change Founder and Executive Director Noran Sanford has his sights set on a number of problems at once: the high number of young people entering the criminal justice system; the absence of job opportunities for veterans; the decline in small, independent farmers in the area; residents’ lack of access to local, sustainable food; and the health disparities between urban and rural areas.

Admittedly, Growing Change is ambitious. But it all fits in to how Sanford — who has won multiple awards and fellowships over the years, including the Soros Justice Fellowship in 2015 and the Ashoka Fellowship in 2016 — sets out to solve problems. “This is a systems approach,” he says. “I’m a systems practitioner, really.”

Noran Sanford

Ashoka Fellow since Aug 2016

Continue Reading

Ashoka insight

In addition to rehabilitating the youth and transforming the dark, oppressive space in Scotland County into something beneficial, Sanford hopes to provide a model for other places looking to do the same. Across the U.S., more than 300 prisons have been decommissioned, including 62 in North Carolina alone. Most are in poor, rural areas and have closed because of the declining number of inmates in the U.S., the consolidation of many smaller prisons into fewer larger ones, and, at least in North Carolina, Sanford says, a number of reforms affecting when people are sent to prison.

“At the core level, we are instilling hope,” Sanford continues. “When hope is gone, it creates a pretty vicious void that a lot of other grimmer things can get pulled into. And as low-wealth rural America is left further behind, then that vacuum is stronger. We’re breaking that stream.”