VISTA, Calif. — With more than 2 million people in the nation's prisons and jails, the U.S. leads the world in incarceration. About one-third of people released from prison will return at some point in their lives.
A former prisoner and horticulture specialist, Chris Burroughs, believes organic farming can help disrupt the cycle of recidivism.
"These plants, they don't judge," said Burroughs.
An unlikely spokesman for sustainability, he's recruiting new members for the veg-o-lution.
"All you have to do with nature is expose someone to it, and they'll receive the bounty that nature is going to give them," said Burroughs.
Founder of Garden 31, his organic farming operation empowers at-risk individuals to create their own food systems. Providing career training and educational experiences, they're also enhancing environmental health.
The team has a 12-week program underway at Alta Vista High School, teaching students how to farm in harmony with nature using organic practices to heal the environment. The continuation high school supports students at risk of not graduating.
Burroughs became immersed in regenerative farming in an unlikely place.
"I got a Mother Earth News magazine. It just opened up a world of nature, a different type of living," said Burroughs. "Homesteading, growing your own stuff. And I just thought this is the coolest thing ever."
At the time, he was serving a prison sentence.
"This is the first time I've ever seen a Mother Earth News magazine in prison."
Burroughs first began getting in trouble at around age 14.
"Definitely alcohol and drugs. Addiction, gang culture," said Burroughs. "I pretty much spent the majority of my teenage years on Meadow Lark Drive, which is the location of San Diego County Juvenile Hall."
He later served 14 years in prison, 90 days of which in solitary confinement.
"At that point, I was blessed with the gift of desperation," said Burroughs. "This wasn't my plan, I prayed."
Crediting his faith, Burroughs spent the next five months in prison writing the business plan for Garden 31.
"It's about building leaders. It's about character mastery because we need that piece. It's about creating jobs and careers and bringing healthy food supplies into our communities," said Burroughs.
After prison, Burroughs studied sustainable agriculture and environmental sustainability at MiraCosta College.
"There are a lot of kids, they don't have a very good life back at home," said Mascielle Ramirez, a sophomore at Alta Visa High. "And school, and this garden, is a way of escaping that reality. Even if it's just for a little while."
Burroughs is developing a two-year organic farming apprenticeship for the formerly incarcerated. Raising funding for the effort, he wants to create a 25-acre farm with housing. Apprentices would work on the farm and attend classes at nearby community colleges.
"For me, I didn't feel like I had the resources I needed," said Burroughs. "We want to give you something that, you can own a home, you take care of your family, you can be proud of what you do. Bring health to your community."
He says they're renewing the soil and regenerating the soul.
"Let's take our power," said Burroughs. "Let's use what we have. We are the valuable resources. We are the power. We can do whatever we want to do."