At Dig Deep Farms in Ashland, California, formerly incarcerated people like Philip Bonds and Kimberly Thomas are welcomed to learn, work and contribute to their community through paid reentry internships aimed at reducing recidivism.

By Martin do Nascimento and Katie Friel

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Tucked away next to the Alameda County Firehouse #3 is a small parcel of land with a shed and rows of vegetables poking through the soil. Raised beds, framed with two-by-fours, hold freshly planted leeks, while bright green herbs sprout in nearby pots. An urban farm like this is perhaps an unremarkable sight in the East Bay — after all, pioneering farm-to-table chef Alice Waters’ famed Chez Panisse is just a short drive up the road. But here in Ashland, a neighborhood centered around bustling E 14th St., and bordered by freeways on three sides, it represents a remarkable, almost revolutionary initiative by local law enforcement.

In 2010, residents of Ashland and Cherryland, California, partnered with the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office to create Dig Deep Farms, a program designed to help the recently incarcerated transition to life outside prison walls. During paid, six-week-long internships people learn basic tenets of urban farming, harvesting and other skills. At the end of the six weeks, each intern walks away with a permaculture certification.

“We’ve created a landing spot for people coming out [of prison] who need a shot,” explains Hilary Bass, executive director of the Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs’ Activities League. “They can do an internship with us and learn about permaculture design and urban farming in a way that’s going to be productive and provide them with a baseline of skills they can use elsewhere or apply for a job with us later.”

Lettuce and green onions sprout at Dig Deep Farms in Ashland, CA. The farm was created 2010 in partnership between the Alameda County Sheriff’s Office and residents of the area.

Jobs are, of course, a critical component in ensuring a person stays out of prison. According to the 2014 Alameda County Adult Re-entry Strategic Plan, “the re-entry population [is] three to four times more challenged than the general population in their ability to obtain employment and permanent housing upon release.”

In California, more than half of all people who have served time return to custody within three years of their release. Much of that failure is due to a lack of support once a person leaves prison. As the report points out, the current system is designed so that when a person leaves the community and goes to jail, the community itself is what suffers. And once they leave prison to return to civilian life, they find “substantial barriers to … health, employment, housing, and educational services” — the ultimate catch-22. By providing skills, education, and, in some cases, permanent employment, Dig Deep helps create an anchor for its community and return some of that stability.

“I think it just helps the reentry folks slow down, think about their eating, think about their diet and think about their career path in a permaculture type of way,” says farm manager Troy Horton, an agricultural expert. “Just touching the soil, touching the plants, eating, tasting plants, learning about plants and insects, it kind of takes you back. The land reconnects you. It all starts from that.”

Troy Horton, Farm Manager at Dig Deep Farms.

Kimberly Thomas is among those who transitioned through the farm’s internship program and was later hired to work for the nonprofit full-time. As a “Farmacist,” Thomas helps oversee Food as Medicine, a partnership that brings produce from Dig Deep’s three farms into community-based health clinics. Inside those clinics, health care providers offer patients on CalFresh or Medi-Cal food prescription vouchers to help treat diet-related conditions, everything from pre-diabetes to arthritis. Since Thomas and her colleagues are set up in the waiting room, patients are able to redeem those vouchers immediately for fresh fruits and vegetables.

“I come here every week, get all my vegetables,” says Nichelle Coney, a Farmacy client. “My inflammation is almost to none. I went dancing the other day. I haven’t danced in years. I really believe it’s because I eat here all the time.”

The relationship between incarceration and health care can seem uncorrelated, but Bass insists they stem from the same root cause — poverty. Though Ashland and Cherryland are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, arguably the nation’s wealthiest  region, the two cities have among the highest poverty and unemployment rates in the area.

Fabio Edwards plants kale at Dig Deep Farms. “I feel like this is a way to give back to the earth,” says Edwards. “At first, I was a kid and I was like ‘I ain’t getting dirty. F*** all this.’ Eventually, I grew a passion for it. Now I don’t even see myself doing anything else.”

“The social determinants of health are basically this overlap with the criminal justice factors. Basically, the more we can get people healthy and well, the more safe they’re going to be. So, you can’t … disaggregate those two things,” she says. “It absolutely is in our interest to have healthy people and have local jobs created to support that healthy development.”

And while it’s easy to understand how this kind of holistic approach to community can be found in a progressive state like California, it’s unusual that it’s run by a local sheriff’s department. Even Bass, herself an Alameda County Sheriff’s Department employee, concedes she doesn’t know of a similar program anywhere in the U.S.

“We think it’s actually pretty cutting edge,” Bass says. “We’re calling what we’re doing ‘community capitals policing,’ and community capitals is actually an economic model or economic framework that basically says if you invest in these seven capitals, then you’ll have a thriving economy.”

Philip Bonds plants tree collards at Dig Deep Farms in Ashland, CA.
Philip Bonds plants tree collards at Dig Deep Farms. “It humbles you to see something sprout and over weeks it grows,” says Bonds. “It makes you think about your life and what footprint do you want to leave.”

The model believes that investing in seven different areas or capitals  — financial, natural, human, cultural, political, social and built (or infrastructure)  — creates a successful, productive society. Dig Deep Farms, with its internships, health clinic Farmacy, farm stands, public murals, community events and even the physical farm, helps Ashland and Cherryland invest in many of these capitals.

“When  people come back home and nothing’s changed, of course they’re going to do the exact same thing and go back, and that is what has to get interrupted,” says Bass. “People need to have hope.”