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July 2018

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DC Member's Path from Prison to Redemption

Nine years ago, Washington, D.C., Local 26 member Teon Plater was in darkness.

He had made some poor decisions, terrible really. No one died, but he hurt people. Left them scared and he was paying his price: 72 months buried behind high walls and barbed wire.

As his term was ending, a work detail came his way. Like all the others, he wouldn't be paid, but he would earn something more precious: fewer hours spent behind the walls, freedom a little bit closer. He'd done every detail that came his way until then, both as a way to get out faster and as a way keep a promise to himself, a difficult path he had chosen to get through captivity whole.

"Most of the time in prison, if you are not in a gang, you will be put in a gang. They volunteer you. I stayed on the humble path instead," he said. "And they respect that. A lot of time, from what I understand, they are so weary of being in gangs themselves, they revere and respect when you are not part of that. The constancy is what they respect. So, they said about me, 'He's hands off.'"

But this opportunity was different: it was farming. For Plater, black men in this part of the country, they don't farm voluntarily. Too many of their ancestors farmed involuntarily.

"Working for free in the dirt? I wasn't interested," Plater said.

But he agreed because he felt that was the humble way, and it was a decision that began his journey out of his own darkness to a career giving light to others.

The farm detail meant working for Bernie Fowler Jr. Fowler was a novice farmer and, as Plater and he crossed paths, in his own darkness. The recession tipped his development company deep into the red, his marriage was over and his daughter was fading deeper into heroin addiction.

Fowler saw hunger of all kinds: deep, soul-searching hunger and empty-stomach-on-the-way-to-school hunger. So he rented some land, planted a crop he would donate to local food banks and asked his friends in the sheriff's department for some men who might want to undo some of the damage they'd done to their communities by harvesting those fields.

Plater got past his distrust of farming, but an unexpected challenge sometimes froze him in the fields.

"I got nervous in big open places, not seeing a skyline with barbed wire in front of it. Even though I was in prison and everyone there was a stranger, I had less anxiety there than how nervous I was on the farm with all the volunteers and people I didn't know," he said. "At one point, I told Bernie I wanted to go back inside. I still go through times where it is hard to gear down that protective coating."

But Fowler listened like few other people Plater said he had ever met. And Fowler's commitment to feeding the hunger, to the possibility in Plater, convinced him to stay. That first harvest, Fowler, Plater and five other inmates pulled 185,000 pounds of potatoes with their bare hands from that rented field on Serenity Farms.

"The farm is aptly named," Plater said. "Standing in the field, you would put your hands in the dirt and you forgot your problems. It just goes out and integrates into the farm. You feel refreshed, even though you put in work. It feels clean even though you sweat and got covered with dirt."

When Plater's term was up, Fowler asked him to join the board of directors, representing the inmates, a position he held until this winter. And then they started talking jobs. Nearly a quarter of inmates return to prison within three years. The best way, research shows, to prevent recidivism is to keep them employed.

Plater wanted to be a trainer, but he told Fowler he was unsure about his prospects. In 2012, southern Maryland was little improved from the depths of the recession. But Fowler had planted seeds of his own. When his real estate business was flourishing, he cut rent in one of his buildings so the owner of a World Gym could stay open. Fowler called in a favor.

When the three met, the owner told Plater that, "if Bernie says you are OK in his book, that's enough for me."

"The day he got out, he started work," Fowler said.

While working at the gym, he started to work with the wife and children of Tony Scott, vice president for service at Mona Electric, a signatory contractor with Washington Local 26. They became friends, and Scott gently, but persistently, began to offer Plater some advice: join the union, get a trade. Protect your family.

"On several occasions he talked to me about coming into the union. He said he would be willing to take me on at Mona," he said. "I had a profession. Training. It was low stress. You can do it forever. But I needed a trade. One day, something clicked: Personal training is working with energy. Farming is working with energy. Being an electrician, the root of all of it, is working with the energy."

Plater went down to the local hall in the fall of 2016, signed up and Mona pulled his name. He is now a residential technician, taking classes and waiting for his number to come up to join the construction apprenticeship.

Today, Plater is a changed man. He is married to Shalantae Hawkins. They have a 4-year-old son, Tyree, and a 1-year-old daughter, Aria. He spends his little free time continuing to volunteer at the farm, helping Fowler raise needed funds and extolling the virtues of the program to anyone who will listen.

And Farming4Hunger is growing and changing too. Instead of taking children to the Farm, they take the farm to the them, Fowler said. In May, they announced a partnership with Prince George's County, just outside Washington, to build and run an urban farm, and they are in talks with state and local officials to expand to four more locations.

"So many guys have said the same thing to me: working in the fields was like a church with no walls. My conscience was speaking to me. The fields are talking to me. I can think about my choices and turning it around," Fowler said. "That is the secret sauce we are spreading, how to start feeling human again."

The vastness of the sky doesn't bother him anymore.

"The same way a seed needs to be in the darkness — in the dirt — the same way a child needs to be in a womb, in the darkness, to germinate and grow, go through the pains of maturation, it is the same way in the farm," Plater said. "You are in the darkness and you put yourself in the dirt and something magical starts to happen. The earth absorbs that darkness and it turns it into something wonderful."


Washington, D.C., Local 26 member Teon Plater changed his own life and the lives of others working for the nonprofit Farming4Hunger.