ANGOLA, La. (AP) — Christopher O'Neal has mastered many parts of landscaping and greenhouse work — plant cultivation and pesticide application, among six others — though it's unlikely he'll put those skills to use outside the walls of Louisiana's prison in Angola. So he tends to greenhouse plants that will be sold at the prison's rodeos and trains short-timers for honest work on the outside.
Of the 30 students and 11 mentors, most are in for life or "tall numbers." Those who will get out can make a new career or resume an old one with more licenses and updated information, while those staying find a positive way to spend their time.
"It has taught me a side of myself I didn't know I had," said O'Neal, 40, who was convicted at 17 of killing an 8-year-old boy and at 34 of killing his ex-girlfriend's husband. He's been at Angola since 2008 and is getting help with appeals, hoping for a reversal, though the courts so far have not viewed his case favorably.
"Guilty as sin," Judge Harmon Drew wrote in an April 2009 opinion for the state's 2nd Circuit Court of Appeal.
Only about a quarter of the inmates getting their certifications are in programs aimed at helping them re-enter society.
"The thing about a life sentence is you've got to find something to do — to pass the time, to help others go out and find jobs, and look forward to getting out ourselves," said James Burns, convicted of stabbing and running over his wife and, like O'Neal, serving life for second-degree murder. He has two licenses and is working on a third.
The horticulture program here, started in 2002, has 7 acres at a prison that covers more land area than Manhattan, said Marcus Barnardez, who works at Angola full-time as an assistant professor of horticulture at Baton Rouge Community College. It's modeled after a program started in 1995 at the Louisiana Women's Correctional Institution in St. Gabriel.
Each inmate has a 50-by-75-foot plot to grow whatever he wants, and a larger plot where he must grow specific crops.
There's little scope for their skills in the rest of the prison. For example, few could spray pesticides on the 600 to 800 acres of row crops grown to feed inmates at Angola and other prisons, Barnardez said. Most are not trusties — inmates given special privileges for good behavior — and must stay in the prison yard, he said.
The mentors earn big money for prison inmates: 50 to 75 cents an hour. Field hands, by comparison, sweat for 2 to 20 cents an hour.
Some of the mentors are convicted killers, though there's an unspoken rule: No talking about the past.
"A lot of them have matured and moved on in their lives. We all make mistakes, some just worse than others," said Timothy "Bo" Blackwell, who served a year for running a meth lab.
More than 90 inmates have earned about 250 certifications from the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry over the past five years, said Barnardez.
He said the few who have moved into society have done well, often earning supervisory jobs and running crews for landscaping companies.
Once they're out, they must check in weekly with the court and meet twice weekly with other former inmates and counselors, said Michael Costello, 47, who earned four licenses. In the meetings, he said, "you try to be a light to others."
Costello had his own landscaping business before going to prison for theft. While serving his 18-month sentence, he lined up a job with the brother of another inmate in the horticulture program.
Blackwell, 36, also had a short search — his family owns a Folsom nursery. He earned four licenses in a year, completing work on a fifth after his release.
"I'd wanted them for years," he said. "I just was too lazy to go do 'em."
Associated Press writer Stacey Plaisance contributed to this story from Folsom.