At the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, one man and a team of prisoners take responsibility for the grounds. With each simple, physical task, they work to heal complex, emotional wounds.
Gerald Adams tends the gardens at the most prestigious address in the state. It’s his responsibility to care for the five acres surrounding the Executive Mansion in Raleigh, home to the governor of North Carolina.
He doesn’t do it alone. He has a crew of six men. These men make a dollar a day as they serve out sentences for theft and murder. Most people have given up on these men, but the prisoner work program offers them a second chance. To Adams, they are simply workers, assigned to help him move dirt, pull weeds, and nurture seeds into plants.
“They are my workforce,” Adams says. “Where they spend the night is irrelevant.”
On those five acres, Adams grows grass on temperamental soil. He gambles on vegetables that the executive chef uses to anchor the first family’s meals. He grows kiwi and asparagus and roses that stretch across a canopy. He tends the koi pond that he built himself.
He works for the most powerful person in the state, with the help of the powerless.
Looking for good
Each year, Adams sits down at a table at Wake Correctional Center. He reads files that detail all the bad things that led these men to prison.
Then, as the prisoners sit before him at the table, Adams looks for good. Does he know how to work? Can he stand 10 hours in the hot, summer sun? Is there something redeemable in this man?
In some ways, Adams trained for this job his whole life.
He grew up working his father’s fickle tobacco crops in Knightdale, in eastern Wake County. On weekends and summers, he helped his grandmother tend endless rows of collards and tomatoes. He remembers the city dwellers from Raleigh coming to the farm to pick their own vegetables.
“By the time I was 12, I knew more about soil management and integrated pest management than most grown-ups,” Adams says.
His father worked full-time, so he leaned on Adams and the rest of the family to help with the 25-acre tobacco farm. Adams’s father taught through silence; a mere look in the eye let Adams know when he strayed. Those unspoken instructions reverberate through his head now: Good outcomes require hard work.
Adams learned that farming means working until your fingers feel like leather and your legs feel like lead. He also learned that short cuts lead to dead ends.
“To say I’m peculiar about the way I do things is an understatement,” he says.
So when Adams reads through inmates’ files at Wake Correctional Center, he looks for what isn’t there. He avoids inmates who know about gardening. He favors those who worked in masonry or other labor-intensive trades.
“I want someone who knows how to work,” he says. “I don’t want to spend my days trying to undo all the bad habits they learned from someone else.”
Adams demands a lot from his crew. The Executive Gardens draw thousands of visitors each year. The grounds showcase wild plants and crops that grow well in North Carolina, such as honeysuckle and corn.
Visitors inspect Adams’s work and take cues on how to manage their own gardens. But most are clueless about the workers who make it happen.
Sometimes a visitor wanders by and asks one of the inmates a question about a plant. A few passersby shout praises through the iron fence around the mansion.
To the inmates, these moments make them feel appreciated again.
Crafting a skill
When Adams took his position as caretaker of the Executive Gardens in 2004, he inherited a program that dates back more than a century.
Inmates completed construction on the Executive Mansion in 1891. The state envisioned a Victorian mansion for the governor, but money was scarce. So the warden of the state prison in Raleigh supervised the construction, and he used inmates as laborers. They left evidence of their work in the handmade bricks with engraved initials that wrap around the sidewalk.
The first governor to live in the new mansion, Daniel G. Fowle, had a butler and a cook — meager help to manage five acres and a 34,000-square-foot home. In 1909, the Legislature put an additional $750 in the budget for workers at the mansion. By 1911, inmates returned to the mansion as domestic help, cleaning, gardening, and cooking.
The work program solves two problems. It staffs the Executive Mansion without draining the state budget. And it teaches prisoners skills that help them obtain jobs when they return to society.
“You don’t have to be a psychiatrist or a sociologist to understand that if these men get a skill and have a job here, they’ll have a better chance of making it on the other side,” Adams says.
Gov. Bev Perdue and her staff cherish the prisoner work program. She knows each of her workers by name and greets them in the yard and kitchen when she passes through.
Perdue says the program ought to serve the inmates who serve her, giving them something tangible that may translate to a better life.
In 2010, Governor Perdue and prison officials partnered with the Department of Labor to make each job at the mansion an apprenticeship of sorts. Coupled with classroom training offered by Wake Technical Community College, the program allows each inmate to earn some type of certification or journeyman’s card.
One of Adams’s former workers now manages a landscaping crew in Texas. Others are top picks for state-property grounds crews.
“It’s a good feeling that maybe there is a happy ending to some sad stories,” Adams says.
A better man
When Adams selected prisoner Reggie Patterson to work with him in 2009, Patterson knew two things about grass and gardens.
As a boy, he cut grass for relatives and learned there are few things hotter than pushing a lawn mower in the Halifax County sun. But he also learned that gardens bring some sort of peace to people. His mother and grandparents seemed happiest when tending their flowers and vegetables.
Patterson never paid much attention to his family’s gardens. He fussed with the lawn mower and yanked the weeds from his mother’s vegetable garden as commanded. He rushed through those chores and always wanted to be somewhere else.
The 40-year-old Patterson now wishes he’d slowed down and spent more time in the garden with his parents and grandmother. He wonders if that patience would have led to better decisions later in life.
He knows he can’t take back his mistakes, but he tries to be a better man. In prison, he racks up certifications in HVAC, plumbing, and electrical work. He signs up for every job the prison system allows.
He couldn’t believe it when someone recommended him for the program at the Executive Mansion — that the governor would want the likes of him in her garden. He sweated as he sat at the conference table at Wake Correctional Center. Adams quizzed him about his gardening knowledge and work ethic. And Patterson assured Adams he’d work hard if given the chance.
Adams sees it every day — the healing that the garden brings to these troubled men.
Sometimes he sees them sitting by the koi pond or pulling away from the group to weed a bed in silence. He tries to make their time at the Executive Gardens as constructive as possible. He fills their days with chores. They mulch beds, water vegetables, plant young pansies, harvest honey from hives.
Adams doesn’t deliver long lectures on morality and second chances.
Instead, he teaches them all he can about the trade. He talks to them about pests and irrigation systems. They chat about this season’s tomatoes and pepper crop. Adams doesn’t talk about their pasts or guess about their futures. But they can be sure that he’s not giving up on them.
North Carolina Executive Mansion
200 North Blount Street
Raleigh, N.C. 27601
Tours offered March 7-June 7.
Children’s tours: Wednesdays, 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Adult tours: Thursdays, 9:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.
Mandy Locke lives in Raleigh, where she writes for The News & Observer and teaches writing workshops.