Everyday Heroes

They’re Doing What? How Young People Are Transforming An Abandoned Prison Into A Sustainable Farm

The idea was to create a way to keep young people out of the criminal justice system - now they're paving the way for a new model of agriculture.


You've heard of flipping houses, but flipping an abandoned prison? Sounds like something the folks at HGTV might get behind!

But renovating the now defunct Scotland Correctional Center in rural Wagram, NC and turning it into a sustainable farm and education center isn't the idea of a group of television execs. It was actually the brainchild of a social worker and mental health therapist who wanted to provide the youth he treated with an opportunity to become more confident and self-sufficient.

Scotland Correctional Center in Wagram, NC has been transformed into a sustainable farm to help local at-risk youth. Growing Change/Facebook

Noran Sanford started Growing Change over a decade ago to help young men who were on juvenile probation and had been uprooted from their schools and homes. in 2016, the organization changed its requirements to allow more youth to get involved who were facing challenges at home and school. Many of the group's members are also minorities who face racial discrimination and are often incarcerated at a higher rate than their white peers.

Founder and Executive Director of Growing Change, Noran Stanford (R), poses with Terrence, the organization's youth director. @flip_the_prison

"These are the young men on which we build our adult prisons," Sanford told Civil Eats. "Being locked up as a kid is one of the most damaging, opportunity-stripping experiences a person can have. As a clinician, as a social worker, as a mental health therapist, [I can tell you] it is one of the greatest risk factors in nearly every problem we're dealing with today in our adult population."

While a master plan for the prison flip is still in the works, Sanford's vision has already produced a bee-keeping facility, several organic gardens and a pasture for herding sheep on the property - all run by the young members of Growing Change. There are also areas for composting and ongoing projects like growing soldier flies to help convert food waste into animal feed.

There are many projects already completed by Growing Change members, including building chicken and rooster coops. Growing Change/Facebook

Future ideas include using old prison cells to harvest mushrooms and turning the barracks into a prison history museum. The old guard tower is set to become a rock-climbing wall and an on-site recording studio is in the works for the former hot box, which is an area that used to be used for solitary confinement.

The members of Growing Change commit one day a week to working at the farm with other shifts added on as needed. A central focus of the organization is giving back to the community, including packing and distributing boxes of produce to food-insecure neighbors and, more recently, making sure furloughed workers stay fed.

"What traditional therapy often doesn't touch is the community," Sanford said. "There has to be some kind of social efficacy developed, that community members can have confidence that these young people can change. They have to make a place for them at the table."

video c/o Growing Change

Sanford is offering up his prison-flip model to other government leaders and institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Currently, there are over 300 non-functioning prisons in the United States that could potentially be used for similar purposes.

"At the core level, we are instilling hope," Sanford said. "When hope is gone, it creates a pretty vicious void that a lot of other grimmer things can get pulled into. And as low-wealth rural America is left further behind, then that vacuum is stronger. We're breaking that stream."

How can you start something good?

You can learn more about Growing Change by visiting their website. To make a donation, or get involved in other ways, click here.

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