Despite closing 20 years ago, the Scotland County Correctional facility in Wagram, North Carolina, is a busy place. Instead of being filled with inmates, it’s now bustling with sheep, chickens, cows, a guard donkey, and a crew of enthusiastic local teenagers who are a part of an organization called Growing Change. Led by a charismatic clinical social worker named Noran Sanford, the program works to keep youth out of the criminal justice system by flipping the derelict prison into a sustainable farm and community resource center.

Built in the late 1920s, this field camp prison is one of nearly 100 sites that once existed across North Carolina, where inmates were forced--often in chain gangs--to build the state's highways. In fact, North Carolina used more prison labor to build its roads than any other state. Scotland County is still one of the most challenged rural regions in the Southeast, with some of the worst health outcomes, and highest rates of unemployment, poverty, and crime.

Growing Change is working to “flip the prison,” transforming spaces once used to house prisoners into new opportunities for agriculture, sustainability, personal growth, and connection. The program’s pilot project focused on youngsters under the age of 14 who had been kicked out of homes, kicked out of schools, and put on probation--what Sanford calls the “unholy trinity of risk factors.” 

These young people are especially important, Sanford says, because “they run the highest risk of nearly every grim outcome you can think of, especially terminal incarceration or death by homicide.” After the five-year clinical pilot program, Sanford found that the Growing Change program had an amazing 92% rate of preventing entry into the adult correctional system, compared to a national average of 60%. 

Today, the group accepts youth who fit any one of the three criteria, who come together on the farm as youth leaders (and are paid hourly), whether they have been involved with the criminal justice system, are dealing with substance abuse problems, or are having problems at home or school. Together, they set the future direction of the program, and work to achieve more pressing goals such as growing collard greens or fixing the “chicken tractor” (a moveable pen made from salvaged PVC pipes that protects chickens and allows them to fertilize new soil).

Sanford and the youth leaders never stop moving. There’s always work to be done around the farm, from practicing rotational grazing with the livestock to shoveling compost material. During the pandemic, Growing Change put together food boxes for community members experiencing food insecurity. 

The group has recently begun to work with local restaurants, taking their food waste and converting it into compost. As Sanford observes, “The leading source of waste going into US landfills is actually food waste. And when that gets into landfills it produces a lot of greenhouse gases.” The group will use the food waste both for compost and to feed their soldier flies and worms, which the chickens eat.

Future plans for the farm include turning a guard tower into a climbing wall, the barracks into a prison history museum, the infamous hot box into a recording studio, concrete tanks into catfish aquaponic tanks, and the old warden house and staff barracks into housing for returning citizens coming out of prison. 

The group has had profound and positive impacts for many of the youth involved. Many have gone on to college, the military, and other stable professions, such as lineworking. According to youth leader Norman Garcia-Lopez, who hopes to join the Navy and become a doctor, “Growing Change is not only good for the community and the people who need it, it’s also helped me accept who I am and share my story. [The prison] wasn’t the greatest place to be in, but the new meaning we’re giving it will eventually outlast the bad.”

Sanford’s vision extends past Scotland County, to the 61 other decommissioned prisons in North Carolina, and the more than 300 across the United States. Working with Cooperative Extension, Sanford is creating a free, open source, prison flip toolkit, that will help people in other communities begin the process of reclaiming their local closed prisons. 

To Sanford, this is all part of a larger effort to change the criminal justice system, which he thinks has largely ignored the rural perspective. “The mass incarceration of today continues to lay a heavy burden on people of color who disproportionately continue to be locked up.” says Sanford. “These properties provide a staging ground to ignite the social entrepreneurial spirit of these communities to transform these properties, while we transform our youth, and while our youth help transform our communities.”

Published on Oct 15, 2021