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HORTICULTURIST'S VOLUNTEER WORK AT UTAH STATE PRISON HELPS PLANT SEEDS OF HOPE, SELF-ESTEEM FOR INMATES

He counts the likes of Gary Gilmore among his friends and decorates his home with the handiwork of criminals.

He's dedicated more than 35 years of his life to teaching society's throwaways how to make the world more beautiful.At 83, Elmer Knowles is one of the prison's oldest volunteers.

He lives in a little house nestled between freeways and shopping malls and spends his time teaching those who've spent their lives destroying how to create.

A horticulturist by profession, a Samaritan by choice, Knowles says that few say thank-yous as well as inmates.

"They're the most appreciative people in the world," he said. "Thank you isn't enough. They've gotta give you something."

He points to paintings and a tiny log cabin pieced together with painstaking patience. He points out a poem written after he lost his wife and a song written for him by another inmate.

"I've never met one in 17,000 that didn't have good in him," he said.

He spends about three days a week at the prison helping inmates run their greenhouse program, a program he helped start.

Knowles' friendship with the inmates began 35 years ago when his LDS ward sent several volunteers to the prison. His second day there, someone found out he was a horticulturist.

"They asked me if I could help them make the place presentable," he said, laughing.

So, they rounded up a few inmates and planted flowers.

As president of the the Nursery Association, he helped ensure the program's success by trading seed for flowers. The Nursery Association still backs the prison's greenhouse program today, he says.

Now the program does so well that they give flowers to many organizations and grow vegetables that feed not only inmates but many poor and homeless people.

Knowles says last year inmates donated 21 tons of vegetables to the Utah Food Bank. The program pays for itself completely.

But all of that wasn't enough for Knowles.

Fifteen years ago, he asked corrections officials about starting a school where inmates could learn the art of gardening and leave prison with a marketable trade.

Ten men have graduated from the program, left prison and stayed out for three years, Knowles says.

"We have an 85 percent stay-out rate," he added.

But some come back. Instead of making Knowles upset, he says, it just hurts.

"We sit down and say that road didn't work. `Let's figure out one that will.' "

He says inmates are a tough lot to win over, but once you earn their trust, you have friends for life.

"For the first six months you're on probation," he said. "Consistency is the key . . . being there every day. From then on, they trust you and treat you like you're family."

He says he's learned to respect them and they respect him. They jokingly call him "the whip" because he tells them they can't quit.

"I had a couple lifers who wanted to quit because their hands were sore. I said, `Slaves can't quit; they have to be sold.' "

Asked how long he plans to continue his work there, he said, "I want 35 more years. I know I won't get it, but I want that. There's something about that place."