Growing Hope and Houseplants

Restorative gardens captured our imaginations at last year’s Chelsea Flower Show. As interest continues to grow in the benefits of getting hands dirty in soil, one project has caught our attention.

The Glasshouse uses the healing power of houseplants to cultivate change. Founded in the unused greenhouses of HMP East Sutton Park, this social enterprise turns lives around for women in prison.

Behind the bars of women’s prisons lies an often-overlooked reality. Deprivation from nature, struggles with past trauma, and lack of contact with children contribute to self-harm rates 10 times higher than in men’s prisons and 82% of women experiencing mental health difficulties. The Glasshouse offers a lifeline, providing a caring, supportive environment where women can connect with nature and each other.

Many of the women who join The Glasshouse have never worked with or owned a plant before. Through the project, they find solace and purpose in caring for plants, experiencing a renewed sense of self-worth as they propagate and tend to new life, mirroring their own journey of personal growth and rehabilitation.

female prisoner carrying boxes inside glasshouse

Photography by Diana Yule

the glasshouse women handling potted plants

Photography by Diana Yule

The project came about after a visit to HMP East Sutton Park, a women’s open prison in Kent, by The Glasshouse co-founder, Melissa Murdoch. Melissa realised that women were leaving prison without a home, without a place to work, and without a proper chance of making it. Consequently, reoffending rates are higher because people don’t have any other option.

With the aim of breaking a harmful cycle that affects women, their children, and communities, Melissa saw the potential in the greenhouses at the prison. Her aim was to help women not only survive in prison but thrive by providing second chances through horticultural training and employment.

Four years later, The Glasshouse is a thriving business with a therapeutic training and growing facility, an online plant shop, a high street shop in Cranbrook, Kent as well as a corporate interior landscaping installation and maintenance service for offices and hospitality across London.

The women are allowed to leave prison on day release to train and work with The Glasshouse. Women are paid a living wage, enabling them to save money for release or to support their families. They also work toward qualifications in horticulture to improve their future job prospects.

Before coming to open prison, Annie served her time in HMP Eastwood Park and she shares her experience: “When I came into prison what I didn’t realise that it wouldn’t just be lack of freedom, the thing that was taken away was the whole of nature. When I started at The Glasshouse it opened up a whole new world for me… having my hands in soil, just being able to hold and look at the different leaves on a plant… I wasn’t in a good place at all, and I was fortunate that The Glasshouse scooped me up and saved me.”

Annie found hope and comfort in the project: “It felt a safe, positive place – I hadn’t felt safe or positive for a while… Walking from the shop to the growing facility reminded me that I still have capabilities, I have value, and I have a future.”

Annie works as part of the installation and maintenance team, creating and caring for beautiful and impactful plant arrangements in offices, retail and hospitality, like member’s club, The Conduit:

“I like the installation work. Seeing an office barren and we go in and put all the plants in and it becomes a total different environment, really good for the people working there. I’m drawn to the wacky plants, like the Snake plant – the closest thing to a dinosaur because it looks prehistoric, and Rabbit’s Foot Fern looks like a tarantula climbing out of the pot.”

This year, the women of The Glasshouse are taking their indoor gardening to a whole new level, collaborating on the creation of the first indoor garden by women in prison for the RHS Chelsea Flower Show.

‘The Glasshouse Effect’ Houseplant Studio exhibit will be set in an 18-foot glasshouse, paying homage to the social enterprise’s roots. Visitors will be taken on a journey through a leafy timeline from the first day of confinement to eventual release. It will feature loaned prison objects and keepsakes from the world beyond bars.

Illustration of The Glasshouse displayed at RHS Chelsea Houseplant Studios 2024

A soundscape will envelop visitors with the voices of women who have faced their darkest hours, found healing in houseplants, and emerged stronger. The exhibit will celebrate nature’s transformative power and the indomitable spirit of women who dare to grow and bloom even in the harshest of environments.

the glasshouse kali hommerton stove

The Glasshouse co-founder, Kali Hamerton-Stove, reflects on the project’s impact: “One of the biggest benefits we offer the women is to reconnect with society, grow in confidence and feel part of the world again.”

About two years ago, The Glasshouse introduced interior houseplant potting and wellbeing workshops. Companies hire the women to conduct these sessions in their offices and other sites. This initiative has proven to be one of the most effective strategies in helping women increase self-belief and esteem, as they get to be the expert and teach, bridging the gap between confinement and reintegrating into society.

Kali has observed how these workshops build-up the women as they prepare for release: “…there’s a lot of anxiety, stress, and worry about what it’s going to be like on the outside and what’s waiting for them… The women love doing the workshops because they’re sharing all their knowledge and experience; the kind of compost they’re making, how to care for their houseplants, how to propagate and people really listen and respond to them.”

Netti, one of the women helped by the project, is grateful for the robust resettlement programme The Glasshouse has offered to her after release:

“Normally you’re released with a backpack and £37 in your pocket. They gave me hope, there was light at the end of the tunnel.”

Jess summed up the impact The Glasshouse has had on her life after release: “I’ve been with The Glasshouse just over a year. Very recently I’ve been released after two and half years in prison and they have given me confidence, stability, a home, employment, and I feel valued. All women in prison should have an opportunity to be part of this.”

One of The Glasshouse’s proudest achievements is its zero per cent reoffending rate. According to the prison reform trust, nearly three in five women (58%) leaving prison are reconvicted within a year of release, rising to nearly three-quarters (73%) of women serving sentences of less than 12 months. The economic and social cost of reoffending in England and Wales is approximately £18 billion per year. The project is proof that, like plants, with the right environment and care, individuals can thrive and blossom, irrespective of their past.

Photography by Diana Yule

By providing meaningful work and a sense of purpose, coupled with fair wages and support on release, the project demonstrates the power for restorative gardening. Looking ahead, co-founder Kali Hamerton-Stove wants to expand the project to impact more women and extend to other women’s prisons.

With the women’s prison population projected to rise by 16% by 2027, the demand for initiatives like The Glasshouse is more pressing than ever. Their mantra, “our plants are good for everyone,” reaffirms their belief that by reconnecting people with nature and channelling energy into nurturing plants not only has mental and wellness benefits for the women but also their children, families, and communities.

Life on the inside: Key Insights

  • Less than 4% of the UK’s total prison population are held in women’s prisons, where violent offenses are rare.
  • Nearly 60% of incarcerated women report being victims of domestic abuse.
  • Self-harm rates in women’s prisons are 10 times higher than in men’s prisons.
  • Two-thirds of women in prison have children under 18, often held far from home.
  • Prisoners are entitled to 30 minutes to an hour of outdoor time daily, yet this is often unfulfilled.
  • Employment post-release significantly reduces reoffending rates by 6-9%.
  • Many women face the “revolving door” of short sentences, hindering access to education and job opportunities.
  • Research by the University of Central Lancashire has found that prison horticulture programmes have a ‘marked effect on mental health and wellbeing’.
  • Leyhill Open Prison in South Gloucestershire previously operated a nursery supplying the prison and selling surplus produce to the public. They even showcased gardens at the Chelsea Flower Show, which inspired a film starring Helen Mirren.

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