Maricopa County Helps Juvenile Detainees Learn, Grow With Community Garden Beds

By Casey Kuhn
Published: Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 11:39am
Updated: Tuesday, December 4, 2018 - 2:33pm

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Courtesy Teresa Tschuppt/Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Department
Youth work on the garden beds at the Maricopa County Juvenile Probation Facility.

Maricopa County has about 200 juveniles in detention or probation programs. Officials have been using different programs to encourage personal growth rather than treating the youth like criminals. 

"When we cut, we're gonna cut right there," said Probation Officer Wilbur Brown to Precious, a detained youth. 

"Right there?" she asked.

"Right there," he said.

Brown is guiding Precious on how to properly put in drip irrigation on a just-built, raised garden bed.

“We’re just fixing the piping, we’re doing tubing right now," Precious explained.

Brown handed Precious a sharp-ended, pipe-cutting tool to snip where the pipe ends at the garden wall.

When she was done, the 14-year-old asked another adult supervisor to take her cutting shear.

Precious said she’s gardened before, with her grandma.

“She used to garden flowers and vegetables," she said. "She mostly planted lettuce and stuff. She planted tomatoes, lettuce, she had a salsa garden.”

Precious was one of the dozen teenagers outside in red shirts that identify their status as the detained youth with the best behavior. That status gave them the chance to work in the yard at the youth detention center, southwest of downtown Phoenix.

Precious wanted to take what she learned to help build a water system back at her grandma’s.

“I learned what certain tools are used for," she said. "I learned a little bit about piping and putting things together and setting up hoses.”

Both detained and paroled youth have a chance to literally reap the fruits of their labor on the eight garden beds. Teenagers can do their mandated community service there and some will earn $8 an hour to help repay victim restitution funds.

Officer Brown said this program is a first in his 30 years as a probation officer.

“This is completely unique to some of the things the department is doing,” Brown said.

That, he said, is due in part to the influence of Teresa Tschupp as chief of staff for the juvenile probation department.

“I feel like if we show them that we trust them, they’ll act like they’re trusted people.”
— Deputy Chief Probation Officer Michaella Aguilar Heslin

Tschupp said a scene like the one earlier, where a detained youth was using a sharp tool close to an officer, was unthinkable even a few years ago.

“It was deemed risky to be out there gardening with tools," Tschupp said about the first time she pitched the garden idea. "Those decisions were made in a time when our youth were seen even as superpredators. And people didn’t really understand who the youth who end up in detention are."

Tschupp said that kind of reasoning delayed this project years. Now it is happening, with the help of the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension program through the University of Arizona.

Coop Extension Master Gardener Coordinator Yvonne Cooper said she was there for the program’s inception when it was still in the idea phase.

“Gardening was kind of at the top of the list on everybody’s favorite things to do, so as the program coordinator for the master gardener’s, I was delighted,” Cooper said. "We rallied and put together teams of volunteers."

Deputy Chief Probation Officer Michaella Aguilar Heslin also helped make the idea a reality.

“We had envisioned the gardens as an activity for them to get outside, commune with nature," Aguilar Heslin said. "To just learn and then to have that interaction with adults.”

Officer Brown said interacting with the kids allows everyone to understand each other better.

"It's giving them that one-on-one opportunity," Brown said. "All of us get to share. We get to tell them how we got to the place we're at, they get to tell us how they got to their place. It's a good interaction."

Brown wasn't a gardener before this project, but said he plans to build a garden bed in his own backyard soon.

Casey Kuhn/KJZZ
A view of the finished garden beds that youth in detention or on probation helped build.

Juvenile Delinquency Rates Drop In Maricopa County

The average youth detention is about 20 days. Sometimes kids are in and out of the county facility in two days.

Aguilar Heslin said rather than treating the kids like criminals, she wanted to show them what it means to be in a caring, responsible environment.

“I feel like if we show them that we trust them, they’ll act like they’re trusted people,” she said. "The kids haven't chosen to be here, but while they're here we see such growth and change. That's our goal, is that when they leave us, they leave in a better place than they were."

Nationally, juvenile delinquency rates are dropping, Tschupp said. The same is true in Maricopa County. In the late 1990s, detention facilities held more than 500 youth on average. Now they average less than half that.

Tschupp said the simple act of getting caught can be its own deterrent.

“Most kids commit an offense and are caught and that’s enough for them.”

Tschupp said she came back to help lead the juvenile probation department in 2014. She wanted to giving teenagers in the county’s care more opportunities to reflect an attitude shift of rehabilitation.  

Tschupp said any worries about allowing detained youth sharp tools when building the gardens were quickly allayed.

“Nobody gave it a second thought because everyone is focused on the project and treating each other like they would treat their family and that does my heart such good.”

The plan is for the freshly grown produce, like broccoli and lettuce, to be harvested by the next group of detained youth, to cook and eat together too. So far, the detained youth have planted marigolds, sugar snap peas, radishes and herbs.

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