Use the power of plants to transform people, communities and institutions! Being in nature – and working with it – has been studied from seed to bloom, and there is no doubt either empirically or emotionally that working in gardens heals, offers a place of peace, and teaches us everything we need to know.
Knowing that gardens and the natural world help us reconnect to ourselves, our communities and the natural environment is the mission of our rehabilitative gardening program at San Quentin State Prison. Plants are powerful. They create transformation. And actually working in nature multiples that transformation.
For almost every week over the past 8 years, I’ve entered the grey, colorless place of San Quentin to facilitate a gardening program there. Sprouted from a desire to make a difference doing something I loved, it all happened quite accidentally – with an invitation to build a garden in a bleak, depressing prison yard.
Of course, no one told me what it would be like to work in a prison environment, with a culture bent on punishment and authority. No one told me how resistant to change the staff would be. And no one told me, that despite these challenges, the transformation of our class participants could impact my life so deeply.
And we did manage to build a gorgeous, colorful organic flower garden on a prison yard that is enjoyed by all (note blog photo!) Now we’re working on a vegetable garden with almost 3 years of negotiations with the prison…
We have managed to continue our weekly classes to nurture the inner and outer gardener in all of us. And it works. I may not have all the scientific studies to prove it, but as facilitators of “inner” and “outer” gardening, human ecological connections, food and urban ag and green jobs – combined with actual work in a garden – the men shift. They go from “numb” to feeling, and from scared and in denial to hopeful and committed to change.
For instance, recently before Jerome’s parole, he mentioned in class how angry he was that his parole date was delayed. “And then, in front of my advisor, I shut my eyes and just imagined being in the garden…and the anger just disappeared.”
This moment of Jerome’s enlightenment brought tears to my eyes and is what makes it all worthwhile. Speechless. Being in the garden for him was a place to rest his weary body and mind, a place of peace he could go back to in his memory – even after prison. As we write in our certificates to paroling men: “May the memory of our garden always rest in your heart.”
Gardening in our lovely plot has brought together men of diverse backgrounds, of different colors, religions and world views — and with a multitude of crimes. But they don’t really care that they’re different in the garden; indeed, they learn much from one another.
Transformation to them happens just by being there, working with hands in dirt, naming the bugs, petting the bees, getting upset when they break through an irrigation line (which is just another reason to have an irrigation class). Prisoners are people too. I’ve found if I treat them with respect and it comes back in droves. I am very fond of “the guys.” Despite the hardness of their lives, they have hearts…we just give them a chance to plant some seeds and bloom.