Tuesday, September 10, 1996
Better life takes root behind bars

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

A bunch of hardened criminals listening to a lecture on orchids? This might be more interesting than your average horticulture class.

Actually, I don't know whether they are hardened. Most conversation was about flower spikes and cymbidiums and cattleyas, not about robbing banks or dealing drugs or murder. But we were at the Warren Correctional Institution (WCI), and you don't become a tenant there unless you've done something seriously bad.

This is a close-security prison, so no matter how adorable and law-abiding I appeared to be, my belongings were searched, my hand was stamped with the day's code and I had to walk through a metal detector. No corners were cut.

Razor wire and peculiar quiet

This was the second visit for Jan Yates, a member of the Greater Cincinnati Orchid Society. These plants, which she leaves behind for the inmates, are her hobby. Her job is chief deputy clerk for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, and she has used a precious vacation day for this visit.

She is nonchalant. I am not. Razor wire, armed guards, chain-link fence and hundreds of men in matching prison garb - dark blue pants and light blue shirts - make me self-conscious.

The grounds, maybe, could be a college campus. Blacktop paths lead to brick buildings, swerving to miss flower beds and trees. It's quiet, no laughter, and not much noise of any kind. This, in a place where 1,500 grown men live.

A huge guy, formidable with thick eyebrows and heavy attitude, arrived last and took the only remaining seat, the one next to me. Fourteen inmates, the guest lecturer, the prison's horticulture instructor and I tried not to notice how very hot and close the tiny classroom was.

I am sorry that I'm not a better person, but I wondered what everybody had done to get there. And I tried not to move my purse when the big man sat down. Later, I watched him touch a pale pink petal with his thumb, the spatulate and ragged nail the size of a quarter.

What's the plan, I wonder, for classes like this one. Is it job training? Just to defeat boredom? Cruel and unusual punishment? Sop for the parole board?

Alex Pearl, who has been teaching horticulture at WCI since 1991, says he is a practical man, one who looks for small victories. It might be as simple as somebody learning how to show up for class every day. On time.

One of the men told me he ''used to wonder why some people went to work every day. I didn't know. Everybody in my neighborhood went to jail.''

The stubborn begonias

Another man, smallish and wiry, leans forward with rapt attention when Ms. Yates explains how to grow a phalaenopsis in low light. He is a whiz at the repotting segment of the program.

He has been locked up most of his adult life - ''this place is better than the last one'' - and is not due for probation for several more years. ''My family is not trash. I have been a terrible disappointment to them.''

He was lured to the prison greenhouse by a challenge. Somebody told him no one could get the begonias to bloom. He coaxed them to bloom, then to flourish.

Begonias and orchids might be a way to a better life.

''I'm not saying anybody would hire somebody like me to work around their house,'' he says. ''But I'm thinking that they need people to work at golf courses and cemeteries. I could do that.''

Begonia-guy is my favorite, not that it matters. Despite the presence of orchids, this isn't a prom. What matters is what these men will do when they get out. Will they be bitter and hopeless and dangerous? Or did they find something in the cage that will help keep the door open?

The quality she has always admired about orchids, Jan Yates says, is that while the flowers are delicate, the plants themselves are tough. ''You can do almost everything wrong for a long time,'' she says. ''Then if you start doing a few things right, they'll reward you. The more you do right, the bigger the payoff.''

She says she thinks that's a lesson worth bringing to the men of the Warren Correctional Institution.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax to 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU-FM (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.