“I don’t want to say like I’m a tree lover because, you know, we do cut trees,” said Gregory Clegg, a professional tree climber in Hampton, VA. “It’s just something that I look at differently now, you know? And I think a lot of people would, if they learned about how trees work and the science behind them and plant life, and how important our environment is, then maybe it would open their eyes a little bit more.”

Clegg didn’t learn about the science of trees in a traditional classroom. He was part of an innovative program at the State Correctional Institution at Rockview, in Bellefonte, PA, that prepares inmates for a career in tree maintenance and management.

“I really think rehabilitation can occur by getting out into nature,” said Shea Zwerver, the community engagement coordinator for TreeVitalize, a partnership-based urban forestry program under Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Motivated by interests in environmental conservation and social justice, she reached out to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections in 2017 with the idea to provide job training in arboriculture — or tree cultivation and management — to inmates.

Climbing toward a better future from Chesapeake Bay Program on Vimeo.

SCI Rockview has about 2,600 forested acres, a tree nursery and a forestry camp where about 70 soon-to-be-released inmates live and work. Inmates already cut trees for firewood at the camp and care for the plants in the nursery, so Zwerver saw it as the perfect place to pilot the training.

She wanted to offer a program that would allow the men to pursue green jobs in tree management once released—a sector in desperate need of a skilled workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the tree care industry will need 30,000 new workers in the next five years.

“There’s a demand for people with these arboriculture and forestry skills,” Zwerver said. “Trees have tons of benefits — environmental, economic and social, too.” Trees can help clean air and water, reduce energy costs by providing shade, increase property values and provide valuable habitat. For those benefits to be fully realized, trees need to be properly managed.

The demand for a tree management workforce has also increased as states in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, along with the District of Columbia, committed to increasing urban tree canopy by 2,400 acres in the most recent Chesapeake Bay Watershed Agreement.

Training also helps those released from prison find jobs, something that can be a serious challenge. The Prison Policy Institute reports that the average unemployment rate for the formerly incarcerated is 27 percent, and is even higher for formerly incarcerated people of color.

“[The program] is reassuring,” said Michael, an inmate who participated in the program. “People coming out of prison oftentimes have a very hard time finding employment and having a skill like this is just one more tool to being successful.”

In the fall of 2017, the first group of 15 inmates at the forestry camp signed up to take the Arborist Short Course program, an 18-hour training offered by Penn State Extension. Zwerver, who hopes to run the program annually and potentially expand to other Pennsylvania prisons, recruited volunteers from various industries and backgrounds to lead the classes, which range from tree biology to knot tying.

During the classroom training, the participants expressed interest in getting hands-on experience. That got them outdoors to learn how to identify different species, prune branches and even safely climb trees.

The instructors and participants agreed that the experience out in the field is vital. “No tree or situation is the same. The more hands-on experience they have, the more they can apply it,” said Wade Renninger, forest and nursery manager at Rockview.

Being 60 feet off the ground and trusting your knots to keep you safe can be daunting, especially for inmates like Devin, who laughed when asked if he had a fear of heights: “Very much so.”

But the participants agreed that getting the experience is worth it. “Your own life is in your own hands up in a tree. So, you’ve got to take it seriously,” said Anthony, another inmate at Rockview. “Being outside, working with our hands — just having that gives you a little bit of grit to be able to go out there and strive to do something with yourself. It gives you courage, gives you confidence.”

Courage, confidence and employable skills are all invaluable to these men upon release, as Clegg can attest.

“I’m a success story,” Clegg said. “I learned as much as I could in there and I got out and I’m actually living a life off what I’ve learned and actually raising a family with it, off my earnings from it. I’m actually staying out of trouble.”

Clegg was one of the first men who went through the program to be released from prison. He reached out to Zwerver, who helped him create a resume and put him in touch with contacts in the industry. Within two weeks, he had a job offer. Now, more than a year later, Clegg is continuing work in tree management.

“My life before this, before the program, was basically either like death or prison,” Clegg said. “Prison actually turned out to be a blessing for me because it changed my life in so many ways, especially the forestry camp and having the opportunity to do that: Complete that program and learn so much there. It opened the doors.”

“Now I have a purpose,” he explained. “And I actually get up every morning and like going to work.”

Having steady employment that you enjoy can be crucial to successfully re-entering society. Before going through the program, Clegg said he was in and out of prison. Now, he’s been out and employed for more than a year. “There’s no question that this type of training does help to reduce the recidivism rates,” Renninger said. In Pennsylvania, 60 percent of released inmates are re-arrested or return to prison within three years.

Growing up, Clegg’s parents owned a landscaping business, so he’s had a connection with the outdoors since his youth. Despite that, he said he wouldn’t have considered pursuing a green job without the forestry camp. “I think I was always interested in being outside, but the program gave me a different outlook on the environment as a whole,” Clegg said. “As soon as I went to the forestry camp, I made the decision that this is what I want to do. The program just resparked that passion.”

That passion is something he’s now able to pass on to his children. “We get outside a lot,” Clegg said. “It is kind of neat because my middle daughter, she’s always asking me, like, ‘Daddy, what kind of tree is that?’ And she wants to learn how to climb someday.”

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of the Bay Journal.