Why do I help “criminals”?

Despite the recent revival of the death penalty controversy here in California and what “those people” must be like behind bars, there are reasons why people like me spend time working with prisoners.

Recently our Insight Garden Program co-hosted the first ever “green career fair” in collaboration with the California Reentry Program for men living in San Quentin…so they could learn more about green jobs, green careers, as well as food, farming and urban agriculture. The fair connected more than 200 men to organizations throughout the Bay Area interested in making a difference and promoting “eco-equity.”  Needless to say, it was a huge success, and fits nicely into our reentry eco-initiative to provide men with landscaping, gardening and “green jobs” when they leave prison.

So just a day after the career fair, I answered a blocked call on my cell phone, thinking we might have a new fan.  I correctly assumed that the caller had read one of the media articles about the fair.

Without warning, he began the rant. “I was the victim of a Crips shooting at McDonalds.  WHAT ARE YOU DOING HELPING CRIMINALS when people like me can’t even get a job?”  In the moment, I was too shocked to answer, so I reactively hung up the phone.

But the question he asked was right on. Why do I help criminals?

It’s a complicated answer (which I predicate with the knowledge that there are definitely people who should remain separated from society because of the danger they pose to others. But the men we work with will parole and return to our communities).

So here’s my list, in no particular order:

  • I have always believed in empowering people to understand options available to them so they might lead healthier, more productive lives.
  • By helping people less fortunate than I am, I live more fully.  I also get back from the men we work with much more than I give – in terms of respect, care, and compassion. Prisoners are people, too. The men have a saying:  “You get what you give, and you give what you get.”
  • Everyone has a heart (believe it or not), and though hearts can be deeply mired in hurt and pain (which is often anesthetized by alcohol and drugs and very bad behavior), I know from first hand experience that hearts can heal.
  • I believe in second chances (and maybe even third or forth – however many chances it takes without re-victimization).
  • As a citizen, I have a responsibility to care for the collective, especially if people who have offended against society take responsibility for their behavior, make the effort to change, and are willing to give back.
  • If we help one person, their whole relationship system outside of prison potentially benefits when they leave.
  • By setting boundaries (which many men we work with haven’t had), the cons can’t “con” me, and there’s a shift in respect.  When I’m for real – they get real.  One man in reentry recently shared that he never believed there were good people in the world until he joined our program.  Now knowing that there are “good” people in the world inspires him to become a better person.  He wants to make a difference, too.
  • Working with people in prison (who ARE going to leave) so they gain the skills they need to lead productive lives outside means that taxpayers don’t have to dish out almost $50,000 a year/inmate in our vastly overcrowded California prison system. Since 70% of those people return to prison, it becomes a revolving door of incarceration, with enormously negative impacts on the men, their families as well as the victims of their crimes.
  • California releases approximately 120,000 prisoners/year. Whether we like it or not, most prisoners eventually are released and come back to our communities. So why not work with men on the inside so they stay out once they leave?
  • Being tough on crime means sending people out of prison in better shape than they came in, with the skills they need to make it so they will be LESS likely to re-victimize others.  THAT enhances public safety.

And finally, I do this work because I have experienced and witnessed first hand the power of transformation through connection to the natural world. That is what has given me faith in the human capacity for change, time and time again.

About Beth Waitkus

Gardening as a revolution. Most recently, as Founder & Executive Director of the Insight Garden Program, I built a $1+ million nonprofit that works across sectors to provide experiential, transformative gardening and landscaping training in prisons, participant re-entry programs, and advocacy for systems change at the intersections of environmental, criminal, and social justice. To become environmentally aware, all people need is a little time in the garden, or outdoors -- nature teaches us everything we need to know.
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