train inmates

Avon Park Correctional is only one such facility where UF/IFAS has a program to train inmates for life “outside.” The photo above was shot at the Federal Correctional Center in Coleman, Fla., near Wildwood. The man is one of about 40 prisoners there studying to earn the National Restaurant Association’s ServSafe and ManageFirst certification; UF/IFAS oversees the program. / Photos courtesy of UF/IFAS

At Avon Park Correctional Institution in Gainesville, some inmates are getting a new kind of vocational program to train them for life “outside,” thanks to faculty and volunteers with the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences Extension Highlands County.

The UF/IFAS Extension program prepares inmates for a career in Florida’s nursery and landscaping industries, said David Austin, horticulture agent and master-gardener coordinator for UF/IFAS Extension Highlands County. For the past two years, Austin and Master Gardener Charlie Reynolds, a volunteer, have helped inmates master the practical horticultural skills they’ll need to pass the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association’s certification exam.

“The FNGLA certification is a widely respected credential for green industry professionals in Florida, and it is mandatory for anyone working in a Florida nursery,” Reynolds explained.

“This kind of training is different than the kind of apprenticeship other inmates get in a woodworking or welding class, for example,” Austin said. “Now they have proof of formal training that will mean a lot to those in the business.”


At the Federal Correctional Center in Coleman, inmates tend a variety of crops, including these edible flowers. The center houses almost 8,000, but only a few, low-risk prisoners qualify for the restaurant-training program.

Former inmates have civilian jobs

Last year, all 11 class members passed the test with a score of 90 percent or better, Reynolds said. Two students from the group have since left prison and are now working in the nursery industry.

The certification program, known as Therapy Through Plants, got started when Tommy Sauls, an officer at Avon Park Correctional Institution, asked if Reynolds would help inmates who worked in the prison’s greenhouses become master gardeners.

However, Austin, Sauls and Reynolds eventually determined that FNGLA certification training would have a bigger long-term impact. In addition to FNGLA certification, some inmates were trained and licensed in pesticide application.

Reynolds and Austin partnered with Merry Mott, director of certifications and career development with FNGLA, to provide students with copies of the certification training manual, which cut down on the program’s cost.

Plant sales reduce prison’s costs

In addition to preparing for the exam, participants get hands-on experience propagating and caring for ornamental plants such as orchids and ferns. “It’s an opportunity for them to have ownership and be proud of something. They sell their plants at the prison’s twice-yearly plant sale, and the proceeds go toward the nursery and the certification-exam fee,” Reynolds said.

Reynolds has been working with prison officials; Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association leadership; and landscape architects to urge state lawmakers to pass a measure that would give employers more incentives to hire released inmates who are FNGLA-certified. The proposal is now on the legislative agenda for the next congressional session, in 2017, Reynolds said.

“If we can prevent at least one person from coming back to prison because of the program, that’s a success,” Reynolds said.

By Samantha Grenrock, UF/IFAS
Samantha Grenrock is a member of the Plant Cluster at UF/IFAS in Gainesville.