Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 4, Issue 1 - June, 2011


Using the Alaska Master Gardener Curriculum for Workforce Preparation at the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm

Brown, S.C., District Agriculture Agent, University of Alaska Fairbanks
Smeenk, J., State Horticulture Specialist, University of Alaska Fairbanks


The Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm contacted the University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service and requested that it teach its Master Gardener Program to 10 self selected inmates in the facility.  Administrators at the Correctional Farm believed it could be an excellent vocational program.  It was decided that the Alaska Master Gardener course curriculum would be adapted so as to prepare participants for agricultural or horticultural jobs after release.  Eight inmates completed the program and four successfully passed the Alaska Certified Pesticide Applicator Exam.  The program was observed to increase participant morale and comradery.  All inmates completing the program indicated they would pursue agricultural or horticultural jobs.




The Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm is a low security incarceration facility located in South Central Alaska. It accommodates 112 male offenders in a working farm setting. Its purpose is to provide an alternative to traditional methods of incarceration and give inmates an opportunity to build self esteem and job skills through vocational training. (State of Alaska, 2011) It has been in operation since 1993.

The University of Alaska Cooperative Extension Service was approached by the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm and asked if it would teach its Master Gardener Program to self selected inmates at the facility. The farm manager at the facility was very familiar with the program and the Cooperative Extension Service in Alaska. He believed that the curriculum would help improve the greenhouse operations at the farm and improve an inmate's resume once released from the facility. It could also be an important first step towards a college degree by helping inmates experience a college level course in a "low stakes" non-credit setting.

This immediately presented some challenges.  First, the Master Gardener Program in Alaska requires a minimum of 40 hours of gardening related community service. Although the possibility of community service within the institution was investigated, it was deemed not feasible until an inmate was released. Inmates completing the 40+ hour curriculum and final exam would be given a certificate of completion that could be presented to potential employers.  Until completing the 40 hours of community service their title would be Master Gardener Candidate.  The Master Gardener community service requirements could also fulfill court mandated community service requirements in a prisoner's sentence.

The second challenge facing the program was whether the community of existing Master Gardeners would accept the program.  With only a few exceptions, the program was strongly welcomed and often applauded.  In fact, the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm Master Gardener Program became a point of pride among many of the existing Master Gardeners as they felt it had the potential for greatly reducing recidivism.

Finally, there was concern about the widely varying educational levels found in the Point MacKenzie Correction Farm population.  The Alaska Master Gardener curriculum requires at least a high school graduate knowledge level of science and mathematics.  Some inmates at the farm have college degrees while others may lack a high school diploma.  Categorically these differing educational levels would not be a problem, but would a class mixing all levels bore the better educated inmates while frustrating the not-so-educated inmates?

Master Gardener programs conducted in correctional facilities is not without precedent nationwide.  Robinson and O'Callaghan (2008) have reported very successful programs in Nevada.  They observed in many cases that it was a life changing experience since many had never completed a class and received recognition for that accomplishment.  Despite the successes, Robinson and O'Callagan also documented the challenges of dealing with differing educational levels, institutional barriers and low morale in both the inmates and prison employees.

The Program

Beginning in the fall of 2010 the first Master Gardener Program was taught at the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm for 10 self selected inmates.  In the traditional Master Gardener Program, the course is taught from the standpoint that students want to go on to become better home gardeners.  The Master Gardener Program at the Correctional Farm would be subtly, but very importantly different.  The Correctional Farm Program would be taught from the standpoint that the participating inmates would be seeking agricultural or horticultural employment after being released.

This shift in goals meant infusing "teachable moments" about appearance, dress codes, language and generational differences.  For example, some inmates had explicit pictures tattooed on their arms.  Opportunities were found to discuss why this might be accepted in some cultures, but scary to others.  The goal was to help the inmates understand why, in this particular example, it might be important to wear a long-sleeve shirt when working in a public setting such as a retail commercial greenhouse.  Many of the inmates expressed interest in starting their own landscape business upon release.  Consequently, information was also provided on business planning, marketing and customer care.

After meeting with the education director at the Correctional Farm, it was learned that many vocational programs largely fail because the instructors "talk down to" and take an indifferent attitude towards the inmates.  To avoid this, special care was taken to learn each inmate's name, where they were from and their interests.  Homemade snack foods were frequently brought into the classroom reward hard work.  This created a good two-way bonding between the inmates and the instructors.

The Alaska Master Gardener curriculum (UAF, 2010) was adapted to focus on issues that would be most important for someone going to work on a farm, greenhouse or landscaping business.  The class met weekly for 14 weeks in 3 hour long sessions.  The class also included the Alaska Pesticide Safety Education Program coursework.  This could lead to earning an Alaska Certified Pesticide Applicator license for ornamental and turf pest control upon successful completion of the state exam.

The weekly curriculum modules were as follows:

Week 1.  Introduction to Master Gardener Program and Cooperative Extension.  Plant Taxonomy, Anatomy and Physiology.

Week 2.  Plant physiology (cont.).  Greenhouse Design and Management.

Week 3.  Woody Landscape Management and Houseplants.

Week 4.  Soil Science.

Week 5.  Vegetable Gardening.

Week 6.  Composting.

Week 7.  Lawn Care.

Week 8.  Integrated Pest Management and Disease Control.  Take home final exam.

Week 9. Agricultural and Horticultural Math Concepts.

Week 10.  Pesticide Safety Education Program.

Week 11.  Pesticide Safety Education Program.

Week 12.  Pesticide Safety Education Program.

Week 13.  Pesticide Safety Education Program.

Week 14.  Review.  State of Alaska Pesticide Applicators Exam.

Results and Reflections after Year One

Eight of the original ten inmates successfully passed the Master Gardener final exam.  Even though this was a take home, open book exam (standard procedure for both the traditional Master Gardener class and the Correctional Farm class), there was significant test anxiety associated with a majority of the inmates.  Each question's correct answer was discussed as a group.  In no instance was an individual who got a wrong answer singled out.  However, they could volunteer to present the rationale for their incorrect answer to the group if they liked.  This turned out to be a very positive exercise.

One inmate did not finish the course because he was moved to a different correctional facility after a violation of rules unrelated to the Master Gardener class.  The second non-finishing inmate was released earlier than expected by court order.

Of the eight inmates who took the Alaska Certified Pesticide Applicator Exam, four successfully completed the test on the first attempt.  Again, very significant test anxiety was observed and was much higher than the test anxiety observed for the Master Gardener final exam.  The much more rigid structure of this exam (closed book and 2 hour time limit) likely contributed to the higher anxiety.  Post test consultation with grading officials at the Alaska State Department of Environmental Conservation revealed poor math skills to be the primary underlying factor.  Although one class period was dedicated to refreshing math skills, some educational backgrounds were so profoundly poor that a 3 hour refresher course was simply not enough.

All inmates completing the program received a certificate of completion.  Once released from the Point MacKenzie Correctional Farm, the inmates will be eligible to earn the title "Master Gardener" when they complete their 40 hours of community service.  Additionally, the inmates received an endorsement letter from the District Agriculture Agent explaining the Master Gardener Program and how they performed in the class.  It is important to note this was not a personal reference letter, but one documenting their performance.

Morale and comradery was judged by the instructors as average in the beginning of the course.  There was also an obvious pecking order that the socially lower inmates would not cross.  By the end of the course, morale and comradery was judged to be extremely high.  The pecking order appeared less likely to influence social interactions or behaviors in the class.  It is believed this resulted from the instructors treating the inmates with respect and as equals.

The fact that all of the participants are felons almost certainly puts them at a competitive disadvantage with non-felons when applying for jobs.  To combat this, farms in the Mat-Su Valley that were seen as potential employers were contacted and the program explained in hopes that they might give preferential treatment to the inmates who had completed the Master Gardener program.  All farms contacted indicated they would.  All inmates in the program indicated they would pursue agriculture or horticulture related employment upon their release. 

Literature Cited

Robinson, M.L. and A.M. O'Callaghan. (2008). Expanding Horticultural Training into the Prison Population, Journal of Extension, 46(4).

State of Alaska. (2011). Division of Institutions Pt. MacKenzie Correctional Farm, Retrieved March 9, 2011 from:

University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). (2010). Sustainable Gardening: The Alaska Master Gardener Manual, Cooperative Extension Service.