Cody Oxendine grew up in a small town in North Carolina dominated by gangs. He joined a gang at a young age and his activities landed him in juvenile court for two counts of simple assault. Three years ago, he was on probation and doing everything in his power to avoid prison. Now, 18-year-old Cody is thrilled to spend a lot of his time at one particular prison.
Oxendine is part of a group of youth leading an effort to flip an abandoned prison in Wagram, North Carolina into a sustainable farm.
Nearly a dozen young men who were on probation now work closely with the NC Department of Public Safety on a plan to convert old jail cells into aquaponic tanks, replant long-leaf pine around the prison, and design infrastructure to raise bees and small livestock.
Plans are underway to provide food for the community and market access for small farmers.
Oxendine works hand-in-hand with youth co-leader Terrence Smith who grew up in Gibson, North Carolina. “The wrong side of the tracks” is more than a catchphrase for Smith. It is a reality of his life.
“Gibson is pretty much divided by the railroad tracks,” Smith said. He grew up on the left side of the railroad tracks, or “the good side,” but Smith said that as he started to get older, he began to venture to the other side.
“I started hanging out with people I shouldn’t have been hanging out with,” he said. “And it was pretty much a downward spiral from there.”
Both Oxendine and Smith were assigned to work with mental health therapist Noran Sanford.
Sanford works with youth in three neighboring North Carolina counties that have some of the highest rates of unemployment and food insecurity in the region.
“I quickly realized we were losing too many youth to the correctional system,” Sanford said. But he also noticed that each of these counties had a small prison that was closed or in the process of closing. “We saw that embedded in our problem were aspects of the solution,” Sanford said.
Plenty of prisons
Sanford discovered that there are more than 50 closed prison sites around North Carolina, many of which have been vandalized and left to decay.
At the same time, traditional approaches to curbing gang involvement and juvenile crime were not successful in some parts of the state.
“We’re often being outcompeted on the street,” Sanford said. “We often scratch our heads as adults about why youth would join a gang structure, but having said that, the gang provides some market incentives at the very beginning.”
In addition to the economic opportunities a gang can provide, membership often means a solid social structure. Sanford tried to replicate that model with a program for adjudicated youth to turn prisons into farms.
He joined forces with local universities, the Department of Public Safety and the North Carolina Cooperative Extension service to develop a volunteer clinical pilot program for adjudicated youth to become small business owners instead of falling deeper into the criminal justice system. The program, growingchange.org, combines mental health therapy and service learning opportunities with a youth entrepreneurial focus.
A strong brotherhood
Establishing a sense of camaraderie between youth of varied backgrounds is crucial to the program. Terrence Smith said that the group is like a family, “a strong brotherhood.”
Cody Oxendine found purpose in working with bees and harvesting honey. He recently graduated from high school and hopes to join the military. Terrence Smith has developed his own vermiculture business called Super Dirt that harvests the waste of earth worms. He attends community college and hopes to get a farm management degree and continue working in agriculture as a profession. Both young men credit the program with helping them get their lives back on track.
Sanford hopes the Wagram prison site flip is just the beginning and that it will become a replicable model to be used on other sites around the state.