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Inmates will soon have the chance to earn professional certification during their time in jail, thanks to a new program.

The goal? To equip inmates with marketable skills for an industry actively looking to hire, according to Joseph Sewards at the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences extension office in Volusia County.

“The hope is that, upon release, individuals will be able to apply for better-paying jobs that will keep them from going back to jail,” Sewards said. “That is not to mention the more intangible effects of accomplishment, self-worth, etc.”  

Overseen by officials at the county’s UF/IFAS Extension, the program at the Volusia County Jail is open to incarcerated individuals who are seeking employment in the landscape and nursery industry, including in lawn maintenance, landscaping, and retail garden centers.

Classes have already begun to teach Green Industry Best Management Practices, according to Sewards, who serves as the instructor.

So far, 34 inmates have gone through the class, with 32 moving on to pass the certificate test qualifying them to apply for a fertilizer applicator’s certificate.

“The Volusia County Division of Corrections is committed to trying to restore these folks’ lives and give them a fresh start,” Corrections Director Mark Flowers said.

Classes to earn certification as a Certified Horticulture Professional are planned for the spring of 2019. That certification is overseen by the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association, which represents roughly 2,000 member companies in Florida’s nursery and landscape industry.

“These types of programs are growing in jails, prisons and federal facilities across the state,” said Merry Mott, the association’s director of industry certifications and career development. “Certifying incarcerated individuals gives them the opportunity for a productive career on release — and fills a significant employment need of our industry.”

A third training class for a hydroponic certification is also planned for later in 2019, Sewards said.

The program is currently funded by the jail, he said, but is seeking $7,500 in outside funding to help develop the hydroponic curriculum.

The certifications available to inmates are widely recognized within Florida’s nursery and landscape industry.

“Such a certificate will greatly improve an individual’s ability to be hired within an industry that is looking for knowledgeable and qualified individuals,” Sewards said.

Aimed at reducing the rate at which inmates return to jail, the Volusia County Jail’s program was modeled after one currently in operation at the Federal Correctional Institution in Coleman.

That program has seen a dramatic drop in the recidivism rate among participants in the seven years it’s been running, from more than 50 percent to less than 10 percent, according to Lloyd Singleton, former extension director of UF/IFAS in Lake County.

“Vocational horticulture training is changing lives and offering a fresh start for ex-offenders,” Singleton said.

He added, “The cost of the education is a small price to pay for the extraordinary economic benefit of reducing the costly returns to incarceration. Our industry needs trained workers, our students need a hand up, and our communities can all benefit.”

— Clary, of DeLand, who formerly wrote for The Beacon as Kate Kowsh, is director of strategic communications for the Florida Nursery, Growers and Landscape Association.

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