Saturday, October 21, 2017

Gardening on the Inside

"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. 


  1. I'm a long time reader, and was disheartened to see your disparaging comments about conservative ideology. I work with many conservative groups, who are very successfully involved in prison outreach programs.

    1. It was not my intention to paint everyone with the same brush. I have no doubt that there are many conservative groups that are successfully involved in prison outreach programs. My concern is that programs like this are often the first to get cut in tough economic times. In writing this post, I wanted to draw attention to the great value of the Garden Insight Program in changing lives and doing good.

    2. You did an excellent job highlighting this program! I apologize for my comment, as it came across as being more negative than I meant.

      I think gardening, as well as working with and caring for animals, are practical and therapeutic ways of teaching a skill and healing what are often deep emotional wounds among men and women in these circumstances.

      The low rates of recidivism among participants of such programs speaks louder than empty and angry words.

      Thank you for highlighting this work.

  2. I'm disgusted by our prison system and would love to see a system set up for inmates to improve themselves in many different areas and be better prepared when they leave prison. Some people won't change but it doesn't mean we should give up on everyone. And yes I'm a conservative. Thanks for your post.

    1. Gardening is a pretty safe and universal subject. It's always tricky to stray into the world of politics. Would "traditional" have been a better word than "conservative"?
      I think we do agree that there is certainly room to improve the prison systems in Canada and the U.S.. My intention was to support the Garden Insight Program as one means to this end.

  3. Washington State Department of Corrections has similar programs. A great article: Prison Gardens: Roots of Change
    August 27, 2016 By Andrew Garber
    DOC Communications

    1. Thanks for letting us know about the Washington State program and for the information about the article. I will have to check it out.

  4. This is truly incredible! I love that the benefits of the program are supported by statistics showing it works. What an incredible opportunity for these inmates. Love love love this!

    1. Thanks Tammy. I hope articles like this spread the word that programs like this work.

  5. As far as I know we have not such kind of programs for prisoners in our country. I think it's a great idea, it gives them something to care for, live and look forward to. It's important to give them an opportunity to develop themselves into people with a heart for nature.

    1. Our prison system here in Canada has had programs like this, but that's not to say that our prison system is good. As Susan notes below, the Farm Program was ended by the previous government here. Many of the facilities for inmates are old and antiquated. We also have a disportioncate number of Native North Americans and people of color in our system. There is also a shocking lack of ability to deal with prisoners with mental health issues.

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks Tatyana for the positive feedback on this important program.

  7. Thank you for this article. I hope the current Canadian government continues with their tentative plans to reopen the prison farms closed by the previous government. It wasn't necessarily the agri-skills which were useful but all those valuable things like team work, self discipline and empathy for other living things. Gardens are important tools for positive social change in many areas but sadly this is not given the respect it deserves, in my opinion.

    1. I absolutely agree with you Susan. Team work, self discipline and empathy for other living things are such important things. Gardening can lead to positive social changes and is so valuable in therapy of many kinds. This may not get the full respect it deserves, but I do think that the growth of many types of horticultural therapy is a good sign that things are changing for the better.

  8. This is truly wonderful, Jennifer.
    Bless her heart. It would be nice if her wonderful example would catch on in other areas. Many other areas. I understand that if one commits a crime, they indeed need to be punished, but to lock people up and then take all purpose away is really somewhat inhumane. Also, for those who will eventually be released, it teaches them a skill that they can possibly use when released.

    Thank you for this post, Jennifer. I think it's really important.

    1. Thank you Lisa. I have been watching the documentary "Who do you think you are?" which focuses on the family ancestry of certain well-known celebrities. There are great history lessons in the show as well. (Well worth checking out on Youtube). In one episode, the ancestor of the celebrity in question had been incarcerated, so the show took a look at the Victorian idea of "hard labor". Inmates in the British prison system were made to walk a treadmill like mechanism for hours and hours without a break. They were also required to do repetitive, miserable work. Talk about inhumane!
      It seems there is a long history of treating inmates poorly. Thank goodness for a more modern approach!

  9. wow, what an excellent program! Thank you so much for sharing awareness about this wonderful program. If only every prison, everywhere, did something like this. Bravo.


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