It’s 2:30 on a Friday afternoon. The loudspeakers blare, “Garden Program is Good.” Then, out of grey military barrack-like buildings meander 30 or so men, headed to the “chapel” for class and some days, to a garden bursting with color. Dressed in their “blues.”
The group of men is predominantly African-American, with a healthy mix of other races. On the yard, razor wire and heavy chain-link fences surround them, with several guard towers looming over the area.
They are the class participants of the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison.
Having served over 800 prisoners over an eight-year period, the IGP rehabilitates men through the process of organic gardening. By connecting with nature, men also reconnect to themselves, their communities and the natural environment. It is based on the principles that nature can teach us everything we need to know, and that through connection to nature we can heal individually and collectively.
On brilliant sunny days, the men tend to a 1,200 square foot organic flower garden on the prison yard with great care. They work in teams, helping each other. Sometimes they name the bugs (“Michael, the Praying Mantis”) and pet the bees (“they love to have a back massage!”).
When the men tend to their outer garden, they start to tend to themselves–and each other. They collectively become a community of care. In this work, they also learn the personal and professional skills they can use inside and outside the prison walls.
Aside from the organic fertilizing, pruning, flower planting, mulch laying and weed pulling in the garden, they also meet inside the “chapel”–essentially a barren room that becomes a quiet haven for deepening understanding. It is the place of inner gardening work.
Imagine thirty men sitting comfortably in a large, somewhat haphazard circle with their eyes shut, meditating. As they gently reemerge from the silence, they speak up, state their first name and express a one-word feeling. Super Dave is usually “super.” A lot of men are just “OK.” Some are “blessed.” Others are “grateful” or “peaceful.” Even being able to express a feeling is a step in the right direction, since so many have lived lives of numbness.
During “inner gardener” classes, the men tend to their weeds and manage their pests, appropriate metaphors for their healing processes. Often, they break into small groups to have more meaningful, intimate dialogue, peppered with provocative questions like: What are the crossroads you face at this point in your life? What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room? How can you make the most of your time with us? Becoming responsible and accountable for their healing means they will be more empowered to create a different future from the pasts they’ve left behind.
The question, however, that always elicits a bit of confusion and discomfort is, “what are the gifts that you have to offer the world?”
In such a controlled, retributive environment, it is shocking to hear those words, which indicate hope, possibilities, and humanity. Their answers reflect the beginning of restoration, despite the environment in which they live and from whence they came.
Over the years, the IGP’s curriculum also has evolved beyond the “inner” and “outer” gardener processes. The IGP now includes human-eco connections; food, farming and urban agriculture; and green jobs training–a holistic design that’s meant to create sustainable human/eco systems inside and outside the prison walls.
And of course, food is a favorite topic–probably because their food on the outside is fast, and prison grub is horrid. Prison must be the greatest food desert of them all. Watching Food, Inc. has had a shock and awe impact on the men who’ve never before considered the origin of food. But afterward, men have spoken of leaving prison and building healthy food farms in their low-income communities to start healing their neighborhoods, both physically and emotionally.
To practice their food-knowledge, the program continues to seek approvals to build organic raised-bed vegetable gardens. Although the men won’t be able to eat the food they grow (due to prison restrictions), the guys have decided to make it a community service project by donating food to local charities and families of people in prison. It is another example of the possibilities, and of the fact that change (and prison approvals) can take a very, very long time.
Most people in California State prisons will eventually leave and go back to our communities. So in the name of creating a safer, more humane, and healthier society, we can’t afford not to do this work. Indeed, the connection to nature exposes hearts behind bars. The IGP just gives men a chance to dig deep, plant some seeds, and bloom.