Sweet peas and porridge

Inmates of Leyhill Open Prison will be showing off their skills at the Hampton Court show next week. 'We've got a bit of freedom here, out in the fresh air after being locked away in a cell for two years'
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The Independent Online
VISITORS to the Hampton Court Palace Flower Show next week will probably be marking their show catalogues with a large asterisk next to the show garden by Leyhill Open Prison. For the last four years, prisoners and staff have created one of the best-loved exhibits at the Chelsea Flower Show. This year, they have escaped from its brutal overcrowding to the freedom of Hampton Court. Their 1995 garden is an "inside out" affair, entitled "Del's Fresh Produce Store" and featuring a miniature prison shop surrounded by edible and decorative greenery. It aims to give people some idea of the unsung value of gardening - commercial and therapeutic - inside prisons in general, and at Leyhill in particular.

With only a short time to go before opening day, preparations at the prison are bubbling along nicely. "I'm quite nervous," admits Jeff Goundrill, estates and gardens manager, as he steers his minibus through the prison grounds. "Things are going very well except for the melons. They should be two feet tall by now but they're not. I hope the judges don't mind them being a bit questionable."

In the past, RHS judges have been generous with the medals, especially for the charming "Edible Garden" which won a silver gilt medal at Chelsea in 1991 by portraying prison life as a sort of horticultural Pilgrim's Progress. "Most people don't realise all the positive things that go on inside prisons," says Jeff Goundrill, passing the modern accommodation blocks set in landscaped grounds. "So taking part in big flower shows at least gives us the chance to show the hard work of prisoners who work on the farm and in the gardens."

The view of the prison from here resembles the campus of a pleasant provincial university. Groups of relaxed looking men in jeans and sweatshirts stroll between the buildings. A signpost proclaims the "Statement of Purpose" of Leyhill as: "To provide a secure and caring environment/To encourage the development of all staff and inmates/To provide support for all families/To assist inmates to make a positive return to the community".

Wouldn't the tabloid press regard all this as a bit of a soft option? Do the 360 prisoners here enjoy a spot of gardening rather like the inmates of a holiday camp? With the air of someone who has answered this question countless times before, Jeff explains: "At the moment the public seems to want prisons to be more austere, but that is not the role of a place like this. Our function is to get the inmates ready to return to normal life. Most of them will have been punished already by years in the normal prison system. We have 120 lifers here coming to the end of their sentences. They will have served a minimum of 12 years before coming to us."

Okay, but how does pottering in the greenhouse or building an exhibit for a flower show help? "There's no time to potter here because we run a big, 200-acre farm feeding ourselves and 10,000 inmates at 26 prisons from Cornwall to Milton Keynes. We've got 70 prisoners working on it. It's an efficient, commercial enterprise making a pounds 500,000 annual profit. It's not hobby gardening. We can't afford to carry anyone." As for the flower show gardens, he insists, they teach the two keen and carefully selected prisoners who work on them how to work as part of a disciplined team, practise professional horticulture and use their imaginations. Not only can it help with getting a gardening job on the outside, but gives prisoners a fighting chance of getting and keeping any job.

Jeff Goundrill parks the minibus outside the garden supervisor's office. Inside, inmates Alistair and Alan ("we'd prefer first names only," says Jeff) seem to be good examples of this philosophy. "Working on the Hampton Court garden is perfect for me," points out Alistair, "because since coming inside I've decided this is what I want to do as a career. I'm hoping to get parole this year and then study a BTec in landscape construction." Alistair already has a prison prize for his gardening skills, and is writing up a diary of the Hampton Court project in the hope of winning another accolade.

It's a bit of a change for someone who used to teach water sports to the US Air Force at Greenham Common. Whatever it was that landed him in jail (Jeff prefers you not to ask), he seems to be turning a negative experience into something positive. In fact, he regularly puts in eight hours a day, seven days a week in the gardens, with optional extra sessions on the show exhibit in the evenings and at weekends. It can't be the prison pay (pounds 1.50 an hour), so what is the big attraction? "I like watching the plants grow, nurturing them, seeing how they turn out," he says. "I talk to them, too. Sometimes I even sing to them. No, don't mention that. I want Michael Howard to let me out."

Workmate Alan is equally keen. A carpenter by trade, he has made the timber shed-style shop and fencing for the Hampton Court garden. "As soon as I saw the market garden, I fell in love with it and had to work here," he says. "It's getting outside in the fresh air after being locked away in a cell for two years. We've got a bit of freedom and we're trusted to do our own work without uniformed guards at our shoulder."

Alan is now in charge of his own tomato house, producing 25 tons of fruit per year. It has its own (cardboard) beehive for pollination, and a computer- programmed watering and humidity system. "It's healthy, you get a suntan and it has a calming effect," he says. "I'd like to study archaeology when I get out of here, but I think I'll always have a garden. Only this time, the plants I'll grow will be strictly legal."

Outside again, Alistair and Alan show off the Hampton Court exhibit taking shape in a small courtyard. "Look through the window," Alan instructs. "The shop even has a loo." Meanwhile, Alistair is busy checking on the plants that will fill up the garden area - sunflowers, sweet peas, calendula, cabbages, celery, carrots, potatoes and courgettes.

Then it's time for a lightning tour of the real prison shop and its customers from the local village, and on to the eight commercial greenhouses to see vegetables galore and check the progress of the more tender Hampton Court plants. "Of course, this will be bigger," mutters Alistair, "that's going in the fridge to hold it back and we'll have half a dozen of those." There are furrowed brows over the ornamental fig tree - will it fruit in time? Is the espalier cucumber growing in the right direction?

Next week the fruits of all these labours will be exposed to the public and the critical eye of the RHS cognoscenti. Alan and Alistair, who have shared the process of creation from (computerised) drawing-board to working on-site at Hampton Court to construct their show garden, will be nervously awaiting the verdict of the judges.

There is just one difference from previous flower shows, however. They will be biting their nails in their prison cells this year. As Jeff explains, the Home Office is getting nervous about allowing prisoners out for "recreational pursuits" in case there is damaging publicity. This mean-spirited policy means that visitors to Hampton Court won't be able to meet prisoners such as Alistair and Alan, just enjoy the result of all their hard work. And a happy Hampton Court to you too, Mr Howard.

! Hampton Court Palace Flower Show runs from 5-9 July, Wed-Sat: 10am- 7.30pm; Sun: 10am-5pm. Admission is pounds 14 for adults (pounds 11 for RHS members), pounds 8 for those arriving after 3pm (pounds 7 for RHS members) and pounds 4 for children between 5 and 15 years old. To book by credit card, phone 0171-344 4444 (0171-344 9966 for RHS members). A pounds 2 rail voucher is given for every ticket sold in advance. Tickets are also available on the gate. For full details phone the RHS Special Events office on 0171-630 5999.