"Plants give me oxygen, and I give them carbon dioxide. We need each other."Reginald, Insight Garden Program participant
When it comes to inmates in the prison system, a charitable viewpoint ends for many people. So often there is little sympathy for those who find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Perhaps it is not surprising that it took Beth Wiatkus a full year to gain permission from San Quentin Prison to create a small flower garden, and an even longer period of five years to add a second, larger garden to the otherwise rather bleak prison grounds. But with perseverance, Beth installed raised beds, assembled a team of volunteers and designed the year-long garden curriculum that was to become the Insight Garden Program.
Beth Waitkus and a group of inmates in their garden.
The raised vegetable and herb beds.
Beth had been working as a communications and organizational consultant when the attacks of 9/11 made her question her faith in humanity. As part of the process of dealing with the tragedy, she had a opportunity to take a tour of the San Quentin Sate Prison. A lifelong gardener, Waitkus was saddened by the desolate and depressing prison yard that was utterly devoid of any greenery. As part of the tour she met the director for the Insight Prison Project, which provides meditation, yoga and restorative justice classes for the inmates. That chance meeting turned out to be pivotable for Beth.
In 2002, Beth launched the Insight Garden Project. "Everybody has a heart and a chance for transformation," she says.
The idea of the program is to connect inmates with self, nature and the community providing for a healthier life while in prison and after release.The group meets once a week. Guest speakers talk with prisoners about ecosystems, permaculture, green jobs training and healthy food.
Many of the men in the medium-security unit have little or no experience with nature or working in a garden. The hope is that prisoners who take responsibility for planting, tending and harvesting the garden will take responsibility for their own lives. Mindfulness practices encourage the men to see their lives as a garden they tend.
Gardening increases confidence, allowing people who may lack skills or education to see success quickly in their work. Seeds sprout and buds soon become food.
Fifteen years later the garden at San Quentin is a thriving plot of drought-tolerant plants. The vegetables and herbs grown are donated to local non-profits.
San Quentin Prison, just north of San Francisco, houses inmates serving sentences under 15 years.
There is an alarming statistic that in the U.S. over 50% of inmates return to prison within three years. The less charitable among us would say that bad people will always tend to do bad things.
Released from prison without skills, employment and little community support, inmates can default to their previous criminal behaviour. It's a simple case that desperate people sometimes resort to doing desperate things.
I think it comes down to your faith in humanity. Perhaps there are some who are unreachable and certainly there are those who ought to remain in prison due to the serious nature of their crimes. On the other hand, it is also possible that a long series of life's misfortunes added up to a person making a serious mistake.
Beth Wiatkus believes that everyone deserves a second chance. She's grown to realize that people who have made poor choices still have the capacity for change. Sometimes that change involves a man getting his hands in the soil and caring for plants to learn empathy, perseverance and discipline.
Beth's faith has been well rewarded. A survey in 2011 showed that of the 117 garden program participants who were paroled between 2003 and 2009, less than 10% returned to prison or jail.
With the growth of conservative ideology, projects like the Garden Insight Program are always in jeopardy. The sad thing is, this is a program that has proven itself to work.
Fortunately, the Garden Insight Program was granted a non-profit status in 2014 and had the good fortune to receive a generous gift of $200,000 a year from an anonymous benefactor. Additional funding from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has lead to the expansion of the program to two additional state prisons. Waitkus and her team are also launching programs in Indiana and New York state.
It's heartwarming to think that gardening can help people turn their lives around.
Thanks to the Insight Garden Program for permission to use the images in this post.
More Information and Links:
Beyond Prison website
Insight Prison Project website
Read about a similar program here in Canada in this Globe and mail article
Read about "Project Soil" on The Kingston Prison Farms website
Learn about the Evergreen project to complete a community based naturalization and garden project as a transition program for federally incarcerated women in British Columbia, Canada.