After George Wright was released from James T. Vaughn Correctional Center in Smyrna, one of the biggest challenges he faced was keeping a working cellphone. It’s an all-too-familiar dilemma among the formerly incarcerated: You can’t get a job if you don’t have a phone, but it’s difficult to keep a phone when you can’t find a job.
“It was hard,” says Wright, 32, who was unemployed for 13 months after being released—13 months of doing whatever he could just to hold on to that phone, waiting for callbacks on the four or five job applications he submitted every week. “They always tell you to be honest on applications and in interviews, but it never worked.”
The employment hunt was endlessly frustrating. When Wright first started looking for work, he followed all the rules, even checking the box asking if he had been convicted of a crime. After months of not hearing back, however, checking that box became more and more difficult. It was like a scarlet letter, the mark of the undesirable, immediately disqualifying him from the jobs he wanted most.
“I realized a lot of companies will say that they hire felons or people with criminal backgrounds, but that’s not actually what’s happening, at least not in my experience,” Wright says.
So, he did what any person would under the circumstances: He stopped checking that box, stopped acknowledging his criminal record. Suddenly, he started getting more callbacks and interviews. He applied for jobs in telecommunications and networking, hoping to finally utilize his talents and previous experience in web design. Charming but a little shy, and sporting a magnetic smile, Wright sailed through interviews and aced the technology skills tests. For some jobs, he was even able to start working and earn a paycheck for a few days or weeks—that is, until the employer reviewed his background check.
“That was the one test I could never pass,” he says. Those sporadic paychecks, usually amounting to just a few days or weeks of pay, were barely enough to keep his phone working and restart life on the outside.
Wright’s experiences mirror those of Roger Collins. After six months in Howard R. Young Correctional Institution in Wilmington, the 60-year-old returned to society, only to find himself unemployable.
“When you’re just coming out of being incarcerated, you need to figure out that first step. I’m free now, so where do I go from here?” says Collins, who was a landscaper before his stint behind bars. But once he was released, no one would hire him, save for a few odd jobs. To be trusted by others—something he had once taken for granted—evaporated into thin air.
The stigma Wright and Collins encountered as formerly incarcerated individuals seeking work is an experience shared by many Delawareans. A 2019 study by the Utah-based PrisonEd Foundation rated the First State as one of the worst for recently released inmates, a troubling assertion given Delaware’s high incarceration rate. About 22,000 residents are either behind bars or living under some kind of criminal justice supervision like probation or parole, according to data compiled by the Prison Policy Initiative. The state currently has an incarceration rate that surpasses the majority of the other states and every other nation in the world, with people of color comprising a disproportionate share of those affected.
At the center of it all is the Delaware Department of Corrections, which has come under fire over its handling of the fatal Vaughn prison riot in 2017, and more recently, for the COVID-19 outbreak in Sussex Correctional Institution in Georgetown, which has killed two and sickened hundreds. Family members of the incarcerated have held protests calling for greater transparency from the department regarding coronavirus outbreaks in the state’s prisons, as well as the immediate release of vulnerable populations.
But even for those who are released with hopes of restarting their lives, the prospects are daunting. For Wright and Collins, that stigma finally ended on the verdant grounds of the Delaware Center for Horticulture (DCH) in Wilmington.
Vikram Krishnamurthy can talk about trees all day—not only about their environmental and ecological advantages but also the numerous benefits trees bring to communities in terms of social cohesion and climate justice. As DCH’s executive director, it’s his job to talk about how green spaces improve quality of life and wax philosophical about the primal, almost instinctive connection between humans and these woody living things that predate the dinosaurs.
“The more research that is done, the more we find trees are increasingly important elements of people’s lives,” Krishnamurthy says. “And so we recognize there are a whole range of benefits that trees provide, and one of the concepts that arose in terms of rehabilitation is the notion that plants and horticulture, through a kind of natural renewal, can really provide, in their own way, kind of a rebirth.”
The renewal power of trees became the guiding vision for Branches to Chances, a job-training program that provides formerly incarcerated individuals with extensive learning and professionalization opportunities to start a career in horticulture. The program includes introductions to horticulture and public gardens, urban agriculture and caring for plants, trees and arboreta. Hands-on learning happens in parks, medians and other public spaces where participants can learn about the intricacies of landscaping. In partnership with other institutions, the program also offers career-building classes focusing on financial literacy, opening a bank account, how to write résumés and cover letters, and basic computer skills.
“Delaware Center for Horticulture welcomed me with open arms, and I realized that I love nature and the outdoors, and from that point on I’ve never looked back,” says Wright, who started working at DCH before entering the Branches to Chances program, first driving a truck and watering green spaces that DCH maintains around Wilmington. After a few months, Krishnamurthy recommended that Wright apply to the program and expand his knowledge of horticulture.
Each spring, Branches to Chances admits eight participants who are hired at DCH as seasonal temporary staff and receive a paycheck as part of their commitment. The 12-week program begins in March and concludes in May, a crucial time for landscape companies as they hire crews and prepare for a busy summer.
“It’s not easy finding skilled employees in the landscaping industry,” Krishnamurthy says. “And so what we heard from employers was that this is an ideal time to fill out their landscape crews. Closing out the program in May means that they can get right to work on jobs as we hit the annual frost date.”
For the last two weeks of the program, each participant completes an “externship” with potential employers like Davy Tree Company, Atlantic Landscapes, and the Wilmington Department of Parks and Recreation, where Collins worked the summer of 2018, cutting grass and pruning trees in city parks. Much like Krishnamurthy, Collins compares his horticulture learning and experience to a kind of spiritual growth.
“To get to know a tree—how far down you need to dig to put in in the ground, how much space it needs to grow, how to nourish it, feed it, care for it and stuff like that—really brought me into contact with a really beautiful picture of nature,” he says, “and I felt both an obligation and an opportunity to make it grow and keep it alive.”
The city of Wilmington has partnered with DCH on this program through multiple administrations. According to Kevin Kelley, the director of the Department of Parks and Recreation, many of the candidates who graduated from Branches to Chances have found permanent employment with the city.
“It’s a no-brainer,” Kelley says. “Somebody has developed skills that we need through a program like DCH. We know they’re qualified and willing to work. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
If all goes well during the job placement, and usually everything does, then those employers will hire the candidates at the end of the program. Many participants have also gone on to start their own landscaping companies, including Wright and Collins.
After Branches to Chances, Wright worked with DCH but also started taking on side jobs and continued to grow his knowledge about horticulture and landscaping. Then came a referral from one client for another job, and then another. Now he has his own landscaping company and employs two seasonal workers.
“I’ll never take another job where I have to remain indoors seven or eight hours at a time,” he says. “This has enabled me to be my own boss and make more money than I ever thought I’d make.”
Buoyed by DCH and the knowledge he acquired through Branches to Chances, Collins was also able to start his own landscaping business.
“It teaches so much more than horticulture,” he says. “It’s about developing the body and the mind, both learning how to care for trees but also confronting the pain or whatever it is you’re dealing with on the inside. The program taught me how to better myself and my business.”