Organic gardening programs are “sprouting” up in prisons around the country to help teach prisoners how to grow and harvest their own food. These programs are having a surprising effect on helping participants re-connect with themselves and develop a larger understanding of their connection to the world around them.
The Insight Garden Program at San Quentin is one such organization that is really making a difference in inmates lives. IGP provides inmates with practical gardening and landscaping skills on a 1,200-square foot organic garden located within the prison walls. Up close the gardens are truly inspirational. Compared to the crumbling prison structure that houses the 5,500 inmates at San Quentin, the IGP gardens are a bit of heaven on earth.
By working with skilled horticulturist, the inmates are taught interpersonal qualities of responsibility, discipline, mindfulness, and respect for the earth and one another. The idea is to combined organic gardening and life skills training to help participants gain self respect and pride in their work – important qualities for breaking the cycle of incarceration.
So far it appears the results of the program has been extremely positive. Participants I’ve meet claim the work is transformative and gives them greater respect for the natural world. They seem to be truly proud of the garden’s impact on the physical environment and social climate of the prison yard. Ultimately, IGP hopes this program will translate to successful reentry for ex-offenders and thus help reduce recidivism.
Gardening Projects Expand Outside the Walls
In San Francisco, the Gardening Project is carrying out a similar mission, while expanding their work to include programs for ex-offenders outside the prison walls.
The Garden Project began as a horticulture program for prisoners at the San Francisco County Jail in 1982, training prisoners in organic farming and landscaping while growing food to be donated to local communities. Today, the Project pools the resources and needs of local businesses and government agencies to impact local physical environment in the communities, all while paying participants a living wage.
Former prisoners are employed at theProject’s 12-acre organic farm, and involves them in a number of environmental maintenance and urban beautification projects. In addition to its thorough job training and counseling programs, they also help their employees attain their GED (graduate from high school) and attend courses at local community colleges. Food grown at the farm is donated to local food banks, helping seniors and families in the impoverished neighborhoods from which the participants come.
One of the greatest successes of the Garden Project is the reduction of crime and reduced recidivism rates in San Francisco. Participants in the post-release program are 25% less likely to return to jail than those that do not participate. Because of their success, the Garden Project has been hailed as “one of the most innovative and successful community-based crime prevention programs in the country” by the US Department of Agriculture.
The Garden Project has two major post-release programs for ex-offenders:
The Market Garden Program trains individuals in landscaping and gardening at two sites located on Carroll Street in Hunter’s Point and at The San Francisco County Jail. Participants are paid to work a 32-hour workweek during which they learn to cultivate and harvest a variety of organic vegetables and herbs. Part of each harvest is sold at the weekend Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market, to Bay Area restaurants, and to local specialty supermarkets. Much of the produce is also donated to local senior centers, family centers, and homeless shelters.
The second post-release project is the Tree Corps. Members of this group plant and maintain street trees in San Francisco neighborhoods such as the Mission, Western Addition, and Hunter’s Point. Tree Corps participants receive training from Department of Public Works employees in tree planting and maintenance, and are paid to work 32-hour weeks.
Expanding Gardening Programs for Prisoners
The Garden Project is the best known and most comprehensive prison garden program in North America. But it is not alone. A number of other prison garden programs have sprouted across the country, including a massive collaboration across 28 state institutions in Wisconsin. The Wisconsin prison gardens have yielded as much as 75,000 pounds of produce per year, donating a quarter of that to local food banks.
Since 2008, the Garden Project has also assisted local gardening programs in rural India by coordinating seed donations.
The video below documents another of the many gardening programs in America, this one located at Cook County Jail in Illinois. The program began in 1993 and since its inception more than 500 inmates have participated and over 63 tons of food has been harvested. The garden is operated at no cost to taxpayers, as the jail’s Department of Community Supervision and Intervention utilizes inmate welfare funds – profits generated off jail commissary sales – to begin each year’s crop and for construction of the greenhouse. As the Cook County Jail’s gardening program continues to grow, the goal is to eventually make it completely self-sustaining.