Some inmates at the Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston are using their time behind bars to grow in more ways than one.

Low-level offenders from Southeast Correctional Center in Charleston work at Amanzi Farms greenhouse in Sikeston (Image courtesy of KFVS-TV)

It’s a paid opportunity for low-level offenders to nurture a career in horticulture, and one of their classrooms is at Amanzi Farms, a high-tech greenhouse in southeast Missouri’s Sikeston.

Those involved in the program are calling it a win-win because it is creating a skilled workforce and offers inmates a second chance.

Ryan Ardis is an inmate at the Southeast Correctional Center and was one of the first to enroll in the horticulture apprenticeship program at Amanzi Farms.  He takes pride in his work and believes it’ll present him with a future employment opportunity.  

“You don’t go to prison thinking you are going to come out with a career,” Ardis says. “For me, this is not a job I arrive at day by day thinking ‘Oh I’m at work again.’ I am actually here having fun, enjoying what I do.”

Ardis and other offenders are earning certifications and learning how to grow vegetables in pools of water, starting from a small seed up to the final product.

“Having this opportunity as the base of the new leaf I am turning over is just phenomenal,” Ardis says. “It feels great to actually take what I am getting from here and apply it to the rest of my life. I can go anywhere now and work on a farm and show them what I’ve been doing on paper.”

Steve Hamra is the founder, owner, and operator of Amanzi Farms, which he started to build four years ago.

“I think it’s a win-win,” says Hamra. “Not only for us being able to use the labor side of it. But it’s a win-win because we actually have a couple of inmates that want to come back here after their release time.”

The greenhouse uses a hydroponic system which allows Hamra and his staff to control more variables so they can quickly grow nutritious vegetables.

“What you are doing is you’re creating a prime environment,” Harma says. “With us controlling water temperatures, fertilizer ratios, we can do 20 times more than what somebody outside can do.”

Harmi notes Amazi Farms is part of the Farm to School Network and sells a lot of its produce to local schools.  

“With just one of these ponds, coming off every week, we can basically feed 100,000 kids out of one of these ponds,” Harma says.

Ardis is glad he is building for the future instead of just wasting time until he gets released. 

“You can’t get that time back,” Ardis says. “So being able to jump into an industry and a program like this and be at the forefront to help change it for everybody else, it’s a great feeling.”

Hamra thinks the horticulture apprenticeship here could easily be replicated at other farms and greenhouses across the state.

(Missourinet media partner KFVS-TV supplied this report)