When we drive by the Yankton Federal Prison Camp in the middle of the city’s residential area, it’s hard not to admire the prison’s park-like trees and manicured landscape. We can see the campus through the boundary fence. If it’s growing season, we may notice beds of roses, colorful annuals, many kinds of shade trees, spacious lawns and the annual winning design garden in bloom down Observatory Hill along Douglas Avenue.

Gardeners and plant professionals of the region have toured the campus to see the horticultural achievement. Joe Hoffman, vocational training instructor of student inmates at the camp has been responsible for site design, planting and care of these living plants for the past 27 years. Hoffman will soon retire and be replaced by another staff person. This tribute is about Hoffman’s career at the prison and what it meant to him.

Hoffman began his work at Yankton Federal Prison Camp in 1989. Fear that the conversion of Yankton College to a federal prison might be a mistake for the community still lingered.

Hoffman said that Warden Crandell, who liked flowers, wanted the campus to become a visual to show the public that inmates were working and learning something.

“In his time, we planted thousands of flowers,” Hoffman said. “We’ve kept that visual ever since.”

However, Hoffman didn’t name the appearance of the prison grounds that the public sees today among his most meaningful career accomplishments.

 “The appearance, that’s more the result of things that are important to me,” he said.


What Are the Odds?

Hoffman applied for a job at the prison that didn’t exactly fit.

“I was not trained to be a teacher. I was trained to be a horticulture worker,” he said. Hoffman had a landscape position at the University of South Dakota with students on his crew. He had geographic connections. Hoffman grew up in the Centerville area and remembers being on the Yankton College campus as a child.

“My great aunt lived up the street from the college. When students were gone in the summer, I’d climb on the “Y C” letters beneath Observatory Hill. I don’t remember any flowers,” he said.

Strength of Hoffman’s horticulture training and experience led to his new position at the federal prison, although he had no law enforcement background.

“I went to work on Nov. 19 and on Nov. 21, our General Education Development (GED) teacher quit, so I filled in,” he said. For over a month he helped inmates learn math and English.

“It was a good refresher,” he said. Then he left for a three-week Bureau of Prisons training. Upon return, the GED teacher position was filled so he could concentrate on horticulture and work with inmates.

“I had a big learning curve about acronyms, constraints and policies working for Bureau of Prisons as well as the formal day to day setting with a teaching curriculum,” he said.

Hoffman, like other staff, has had on-going bureau law enforcement training in firearms and self-defense. Staff are trained to fill in for others during annual training. If Yankton correctional officers are needed at another institution, local staff are trained to run a unit of inmates or grounds crew.

“I’ve done many staff jobs over the years,” he said. “Yankton Prison Camp has the lowest incarceration level inmates. I have always felt safe working here.” Rules need to be followed. “On the inside, we are trained to respond.”

“I feel like I was put here,” Hoffman said. “I said ‘yes’ to the opportunity offered to me, but I feel like it was a higher power that put me here.”

Hoffman’s a Teacher

To a degree, inmates have choice of jobs around the campus such as janitor, cook or unit cleaner. There is little that inmates must do. Boredom is an issue. Absenteeism is seldom a problem. While Hoffman’s responsibilities evolved to care of the grounds in addition to teaching, he needed able and skilled workers.

“At the beginning, it was hard to get inmates to want to dig in the soil and do physical work,” he said. The horticulture vocational program Hoffman created and taught gave a certificate of completion. He knew students needed more motivation from within. As he built the program to fit his students, he incorporated a concept he had learned himself.

“Once people start growing a plant from a seed, once they care for it, they begin to have ownership. It gives a feeling of accomplishment to grow a ‘Nonstop Mocha Pink’ tuberous begonia from a speck of dust,” he said.

If guys wanted to work in horticulture, I could choose to accept them into the program. If guys worked for me, unless they already had horticulture experience, I wanted them to take as many of my classes as they could. It improved their ability to do work.”

Hoffman refers to inmates at the prison as “guys” and horticulture program inmates whom he supervises or teaches as “my guys.”

“I will get what I expect. If I have high expectations, usually I get high results,” he said. “Most guys are talented; sometimes talents are misaligned. Some are bright and a few are brilliant. If I expect good work or a lot of work, I get it, and am rarely disappointed. Self-esteem is an issue. Some have way too much and others never had any. Here my guys work with plants, operate the greenhouse, make compost, grow and prune trees, grow houseplants, do holiday decorating and design landscape. It gives guys a chance to find a niche.”

One of my guys made a green Christmas wreath out of wire and trimmings from an evergreen tree. He said, ‘I can’t believe I made that.’ Once the light bulb turns on, it keeps burning brighter.”

Hoffman’s horticulture classes evolved from a hands-on vocational program with a certificate and life-long learning experience, to a two-year Associates Degree academic program through Mount Marty College. At first Hoffman had the supervision of Dr. James Sorenson, botanist at the college.

“We have the luxury of teaching three semesters a year here. My guys don’t leave for the summer,” Hoffman said. Many horticulture programs miss the summer season when plants grow the most.

“I was blessed in my second year here, because UNICOR (Federal Prison Industries) was still providing grants for vocational education programs. We have a 30-foot. x 60-foot greenhouse,” he said. They use the year-round greenhouse to start shrub and perennial cuttings and hold over stock plants in winter, grow seasonal greenhouse crops such as poinsettias, and grow all the campus bedding plants from seed.

“One of our staff commented, ‘I bet it costs a lot to put in that rose garden,’” Hoffman said. The large flowerbed near the prison entrance that has 30 or more rose bushes. “It didn’t cost us much of anything but time and water and a little fertilizer. They’re the kind of roses that don’t take a lot of spraying. We use cuttings. It doesn’t have to cost a lot.” Many cuttings can be grown from a single stock plant by a skilled worker.

“Growing up, we started plants from seed. People gave us a cutting of a plant they bought. We kept plants on the window sill all winter and made cuttings in the spring. We didn’t spend a lot of money then,” he said. That’s how Hoffman runs his horticulture program.

In the classroom, Hoffman likes relating textbook material to real life experiences. Same for his outdoor laboratory. With many class and landscape projects around campus, students have many opportunities to gain experience. He needs skilled workers to show others how to do the techniques for the projects.

Mid-career at the camp, Hoffman became the apprenticeship coordinator at the prison, with the help of staff supervisor Doug Saul. Inmates are required to work to earn their way to be supervised by one who has experience.

“We have apprenticeships in horticulture as well as plumbing, electrical, dental assistant and food service,” Hoffman said. This was another way Hoffman has found inmates with skills who wanted to learn and work. A crew of skilled workers to show others gave Hoffman time for teaching duties.     

“When I have students, I am constantly occupied,” he said. He can’t close a door to grade or create a test. Early in his career he began arriving at work an hour early and leaving an hour late to have work time without students.

“One of those early years I tried to establish a white flower garden at home,” he said. He worked many nights until nearly dark. With the white flowers, he’d have time to enjoy the garden by moonlight.

Learning disabilities are not uncommon among students. After one of his students was called on to read, Hoffman realized the student had a problem.

“He said the words would jump around on the page,” Hoffman said. Other teachers had suggestions, and the student began to use one or two rulers to show what to read. The student had test anxiety, so he was given “work sheets” with the items to solve by himself instead of test pages. With individual help he attained the Horticulture Associates’ Degree and later came back to Yankton to thank Sister Cynthia of Mount Marty College and other teachers. He had become successful in the oil industry.

“It’s one of my regrets that we are not able to track our students after they leave,” Hoffman said.

Space within the prison fence is limited. Space for all inmate activity has to be considered when adding plants to the outdoor laboratory. Nor is it easy to take students off campus.

“We can’t just go to a park and see plants,” he said. Hoffman thinks that directly working with plants at all stages from seed, to seed harvest of mature plants is integral to his program. That’s why he has the outdoor plant collection. Student inmates that tend plants, see them as they grow day to day.

“When I got to campus, we had eight genera of trees such as elm, ash, linden and hackberry and only one species of each. Now we have sixty different genera and species of trees, such as Northern Catalpa, Kentucky Coffee tree, Red Bud, Katsura, Korean Mountain ash, Dawn Redwood and several kinds of birches.” Tree diversity is a proactive response to tree insects and diseases. But that is not the main reason Hoffman planted so many kinds of trees.

“We put plants on campus to learn from,” Hoffman said. It’s his living plant study collection.

“We put in as small a tree as possible, year to year. Small trees establish better and are cheaper,” he said. Several trees have been grown from seed they planted and tended.

“It’s a paradigm shift for some of my guys. One said to me, ‘I’ve never paid attention to plants before. When I see a picture, instead of looking at the house, I see where trees and shrubs are placed and wonder why they don’t have flowers.’”

In Hoffman’s view, student inmates need an opportunity to show what they can do.

“They need an opportunity to be successful, to do something legal to get ahead. They need a chance to work on their education. We can’t force them,” he said. All inmates are encouraged to attain at least a GED level education while incarcerated.

“If we can get them interested in lifelong learning, I am certain they have a brighter future than without it,” he said.

Hoffman sees that inmates are motivated by experiencing success. Some compete with others. Some see others succeed when they grow a garden or manage plants at the warden’s house, or graduate with a degree.

“When they see others succeed, they are ready to be tutored or put in extra time to succeed. When they see someone with a learning disability get a diploma, they see they can do it,” he said.

In Hoffman’s capstone landscape design class, some students see their drawings come to fruition in growing flowers. The warden selects the inmate design for the Observatory Hill display garden from competing student designs. Last season’s Olympic Rings in flowers was not only covered by the Yankton Press & Dakotan, but also attracted a story at KSFY TV in Sioux Falls, and then some of their affiliates in other states. This season’s theme will be revealed as inmates mark the display garden and plant flowers in spring.

Hoffman encourages his landscape design students to have someone on the outside to send them accurate dimensions, such as of a family member’s yard, when they work on one of their class projects, for possible future use.

In 2006, Hoffman received national recognition from Bureau of Prisons for his vocational educational program.

Inmate Community Service

Hoffman looks for community service plant projects for his students because direct experience benefits students, working for public good is positive for students and community service is required of Mount Marty graduates.

Over the years, inmates under Hoffman’s supervision have re-landscaped a public cemetery in Vermillion, assisted with planting at the Yankton County Veteran’s Memorial, around the Yankton Public Safety building, and designed and landscaped of the Veteran’s Memorial at Marion. Each summer, the lamp flower baskets along Third St. in Yankton are arranged and cared for by inmates at the prison greenhouse until installation in late May.

Hoffman and inmates under his supervision have taken an active role with the Yankton Seed Library through Yankton Community Library the past two seasons. Locally grown vegetable and flower seeds are provided free for seed library participants.

Cooperation with Minimum Unit Trustee Case Manager Bruce Fisher and now Jerry Peterson who leads Mike Durfee State Prison inmates of the Yankton Community Work Center makes the project a success.

Locally grown seeds are cleaned, dried, sorted, packaged and labeled at the federal prison. Inmates also grow some transplants.

“We look for community service we can do, and this seed library work is done on campus. It’s a lot of work, but the labor force is here,” Hoffman said. Supervision and arrangements can be simpler, to work within the prison camp when possible.

All plant waste material from the federal prison grounds is re-used there instead of being sent to the landfill. Tree limbs are chipped into wood chip mulch and used around trees and shrubs. Leaves and other plant waste are composted in three bins with interior oxygenators.

“We use the compost on all the beds,” he said. Little chemical fertilizer or pesticides is used on campus.

For campus community service, Hoffman’s horticulture inmates learn to grow holiday poinsettias and then share them as they decorate staff offices. They grow and decorate offices with other seasonal greenhouse crops such as freesias, kalanchoe and geraniums, all from seed or cuttings.

Most Meaningful Accomplishments

Hoffman was asked to share accomplishments that meant the most to him.

“The greater good has been the successes of my students. Some of my guys never intended to go into horticulture, but maybe they learned a better work ethic than they had before. As far as I know, very few students come back to prison.”

The Associates Degree Horticulture program is set up in a cycle of alternate year curriculum. The classes are set up so that so that the campus becomes the indoor and outdoor laboratory for classes.

“The plant collection here at the institution is growing in one place. My guys not only get to see the collection, but they help plant and prune it. In my training, I never followed a seed from planting to, in the case of a tree, a plant that is now 12 foot tall.”

The most successful part is to tie all this, the students, the program, and the institutional setting, all together … to link the students that want to learn, and a program and collection of plants they can learn from. Students feel connected to what they are doing. Taking care of plants gives you the chance to develop strengths you may not have had.

“We have had student successes and a horticulture program develop, and a collection of the plants students work with,” Hoffman said. “That’s what you see when you look on the campus grounds; the fruition of what we’ve tried to do.”


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