Community Gardening: Providing Hope for Prisoners

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Prison gardeners reap many benefits. Image by cohdra.

Prison gardeners reap many benefits. Image by cohdra.

The community gardening movement has blossomed.  The American Community Garden Association estimates there are 18,000 community gardens in North America.  The gardens may be urban, suburban, or rural.  Or even inside a prison yard – and these gardens make a real difference.

Prison Gardens Versus Prison Farms

Prison gardens are distinct from the prison farms of the past. Prison farms have a history of forced labor.  After the civil war in Louisiana, prisons took over plantations and prisoners were made to work, replacing the slaves before them, according to Gregory Richard, Assistant Professor of US History at Winona State University in Winona, Minnesota.

Modern prison farms, such as the ones run by the correctional programs of New Jersey, can produce a lot of food and an provide opportunity for prisoners to be outside, according to Dairy Farms. New Jersey prisoners farm six dairy and crop farms totaling 1,930 acres to feed themselves and fellow prisoners.

Some garden prison garden programs are large operations as well. In Connecticut, according to Bill Ritter of ABC News, 18 prison gardens produce 35,000 pounds of produce, food for the prisoners. This project saves the state $20,000 and provides some food for the community.

In contrast to emphasizing cost savings, community prison garden programs like the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin Prison,  (415) 854-0067, operate primarily to provide the prisoner with vocational and life skills. The Insight Garden Program currently donates all produce to the community, though founder Beth Waitkus hopes that the prison will one day serve the food inside.

Prison Garden Benefits: Psychological and Vocational

We know that green spaces provide stress relief to people living in urban environments.  Research indicates urban dwellers who live near a park, for example, are happier.  In a crowded prison, the chance to interact with plants has a calming effect as well. Beth Watikus, the director of the Insight Garden Program, tells Decoded Science that gardening provides “[r]econnection to nature, self, community and the natural world…a means of personal and professional transformation.”  The prisoners volunteer to participate.  Waitkus believes that gardening helps the inmates grow both better behavior as well as growing plants.  She calls it “inner gardening.”

When inmates who have gone through the garden project at  San Quentin Prison leave the system, Planting Justice, a vocational program, links them with jobs, an urgent necessity after release.

Prison Garden’s Social Benefits

Watikus states that her research about the prison garden found “our garden is the only place on a prison yard where people of mixed race interact freely without any fear of retribution.”  In addition to less racial tension, the program decreases recidivism, or the rate of re-offending. Waitkus says, “we are as interested in rehabilitation — providing other tools men need to stay out of prison — as we are gardening.”  According to Watikus, “prison garden programs can have a strong measure of success (our recidivism rate is less than 10% vs. the state’s 70%), they lessen the tax burden on society.”

When asked if  every prison should have a community garden, Watikus replies, “Yes (as long as people are not forced to work in them). At the least it can provide solitude and peace for the incarcerated; at the most (with programming), it can change lives for the better and indeed, create a safer, more humane society.” Safety and humanity all for the price of  a few seeds. Sounds like this is a project that’s ripe for implementation around the nation.

Resources:

American Community Garden Association. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed November 8, 2013.

Dairy Farming. Prison Farming. (2012). Accessed November 8, 2013.

Insight Garden Program. Insight Garden Program. Accessed November 8, 2013.

Richard, Gregory. Prison Past and Present. (2013). Accessed November 8, 2013.

Ritter, Bill. Prison Gardens Grow New Lives for Inmates. (2013). ABC News. Accessed November 8, 2013.

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