Op-ed: Despite Providing Respite and Healing, Prison Gardens Can Perpetuate Racial Injustices | Civil Eats

Op-ed: Despite Providing Respite and Healing, Prison Gardens Can Perpetuate Racial Injustices

An incarcerated person installs a drought-tolerant garden in the prison yard.

Every time the media runs a story about a prison garden, it’s more or less the same. In 2015, The Washington Post asked: “Can gardening transform convicted killers and carjackers?” In 2017, Next City highlighted how the gardens help inmates and save money. And in 2019, The New York Times described the garden at Rikers Island in New York as an “innovative sanctuary.”

In all these cases, prison gardens are seen through the lens of green jobs, with a fixation on “rehabilitation” through green education meant to instill “discipline” and reduce recidivism—they are portrayed as a way to help ensure that the formerly incarcerated don’t return to prison. But these sentiments, widely shared by departments of corrections (DOCs) and political representatives, are problematic and misleading.

Most garden programs, on the ground, seem sincerely committed to a more restorative form of justice. But the American prison garden movement, at an institutional scale, largely adds up to a messy campaign for green prison reform that fails to challenge—and may even perpetuate or legitimize—the underlying and intersecting injustices at the root of mass incarceration.

In my research, I spoke with staff at 10 prison garden programs around the country—offering them anonymity so they could share their thoughts without fear of retaliation—to better understand this dynamic, exploring not just the possibilities but also the limitations of prison gardens. What I discovered was a more complicated and troubling reality than prevailing narratives would have us believe. And while keeping people out of prison and in their communities is something we should all want, recidivism, rehabilitation, and correction as concepts are themselves racist, classist, ahistorical, and long past due for a reckoning.

The Clear Benefits

On the one hand, when compared to the rest of prison, which a formerly incarcerated gardener described as “moments of total fear displaced with hours of total boredom,” garden programs do provide concrete material and social benefits to incarcerated gardeners.

For one, they tend to center participant agency, enabling gardeners to take cooperative ownership over all aspects of cultivation. Some also facilitate political discussions around food justice, racism, and feminism—and even clandestine engagement with the idea of prison abolition, a topic formally prohibited by most wardens. And, as anyone who has spent significant time gardening knows, there is something emotionally transcendent about cultivation: an intimate connection with the earth, a sense of self-sufficiency, a therapeutic calm. Prison garden programs ubiquitously lean into these experiences.

These approaches, to be sure, contrast starkly with the emotional, physical, and spatial violence incarcerated people face outside the garden. At the most basic level, prison gardens can be places of refuge for participants. One formerly incarcerated gardener told me he sought out the garden to find safety, saying, “I was trying to isolate myself, trying to survive. Prison is a very, very, very violent place.” Another said the garden “is like walking into an airlock,” a reprieve from a “loud, noisy, aggressive place.”

Taken together, these practices can be elevated through connections to community and employment upon reentry organized by food justice activists.

Providing PR for the Prison System

Despite these benefits, however, there are serious limitations to the efficacy of the dominant prison garden model in pursuing justice for the millions subjugated to mass incarceration. For one, the majority of programs don’t actively ground their work in a deeper critique of institutional oppression, of race, class, capitalism, and the political economy of prison and policing.

Failing to organize around these issues, garden programs aren’t likely to achieve more than mild reform of in-prison conditions. While desperately needed, this may reinforce the existence and oppressive functions of the prison in the first place. Small gains can easily be exploited by DOCs and representatives eager to legitimize and depoliticize, or smooth over, the injustice of our criminal justice system, venting off steam generated by burgeoning anti-prison activism. In many cases, mainstream media outlets will readily do this work for them.

Several garden educators expressed exasperation about this. “We make them look good, very superficially,” one said. “When they get negative press, they can say, ‘But we’re doing this thing!’” A formerly incarcerated gardener echoed this sentiment, noting, “The state got courses that make the prison look good, but there’s not effects to it.”

Further, the garden itself is wrapped into an ironic politics of charity: whether because of stipulations in private contracts with companies like Aramark or due to internal policy, garden produce often is not permitted in prison dining halls. As a result, most programs have to donate the food to local food banks. These in turn work to mitigate a state of food insecurity produced by the same socioeconomic conditions that lead to mass incarceration. Prisons are praised for their efforts, incarcerated people are applauded as “volunteers,” and the status quo remains.

I spoke about this with Kanav Kathuria, founder of The Maryland Food & Prison Abolition Project (MFPAP), formerly The Farm to Prison Project. Prior to the pandemic, MFPAP was developing a pilot program that, in part, sourced grant-funded and donated produce from urban and small-scale farms in Baltimore and other parts of the state for dining halls in Maryland state prisons.

For them, as Kathuria describes, food can be used as a “tool of resistance”—contesting, on the one hand, “the current state of prison food as a public health crisis on the inside, a form of violence and dehumanization, and a mechanism of premature death,” while advancing Black self-determination on the outside. The group also strategically collaborates with other racial justice, food sovereignty, and abolitionist organizers and explicitly draws these links in educational workshops, op-eds, and reports.

MFPAP intentionally chose to focus their work on urban farms, especially those framing their work as resistance to food apartheid as opposed to starting a prison garden. They recognized the ways in which DOCs spin narratives around prison gardening to their benefit as demonstrated in The Washington Post article noted above, as well as the contradictions surrounding the gardens themselves.

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“Correctional departments are skilled at co-opting the rhetoric and programming of others to serve themselves and legitimize their existence,” Kathuria said. “There is generally such little programming on the inside—especially during COVID, where folks have been locked in their cells for 23 hours a day—that oftentimes, if the DOC does anything at all, they are praised for their efforts and highlighted as a model on a national level.”

This praise is truly unearned, considering the fact that state governments, despite showcasing programs like gardens, invest next to nothing in “rehabilitation programs” or support upon release while spending extraordinary sums of money across the entire system of mass incarceration. As a result, very few people can actually participate in each garden program, consistent with a dearth of educational opportunities in prison more generally.

Kathuria is also concerned about how the uncritical acceptance of prison gardens ties into the legitimacy of larger prison agriculture programs across the country, which rely on very low- or non-paid incarcerated people to do nearly all the labor to produce food. “Many of these agricultural programs blatantly reproduce historical forms of racial oppression such as slavery and convict leasing, and are then promoted to the public as cost-saving measures or effective forms of ‘rehabilitation,’” he told me.

The Power of Greening

This institutional legitimizing gains much of its foothold through the symbolic power of “greening.” This power has long been exploited across a variety of industries, from corporate greenwashing to inequitable urban sustainable development, with harmful consequences when enacted without a radical vision of social and racial justice at its core.

Philadelphia, for example, advertises its sustainability plan widely, calling itself “America’s Garden Capital,” yet gentrified developments have increasingly swept aside urban gardens led by communities of color. In 2014, Philly Mayor Michael Nutter made the link between urban and prison sustainability concrete, praising prison gardens for providing incarcerated gardeners with “the green jobs training and skills they need to reenter society one day.”

Just as urban agriculture has emerged as a star in urban sustainability planning, prison gardens have been wrapped into a federal vision of so-called sustainable prisons laid out by the National Institute of Corrections in its 2011 report, The Greening of Corrections, which seeks to transform “correctional agencies into self-sustaining facilities.” What results is a clash of progressive and conservative ideologies that promotes greening as a panacea for a host of societal ills.

A number of conservative industry stalwarts are capitalizing on this opportunity. For instance, Tommy Norris, President of GreenPrisons, Inc. and former chair of the American Correctional Association’s Sustainability Committee, hopes to invigorate these reforms. He has lauded the “triple bottom line”—social, economic, and environmental—of “green products and services” in prison that will hasten a “green wave of success.” Explicitly intoning the rhetoric of corporate greenwashing, he seeks legitimacy and profit from greening.

These narratives threaten to paint over the social and racial violence of mass incarceration with the false veneer of “green as (always) good.” And their normalization could, in turn, partially muffle the rise of abolitionism as more incarcerated gardeners are seen nourishing everyone’s favorite urban amenity.

This process of legitimation-by-greening has a whiteness problem. Carl Anthony, a long-time leader in environmental justice, has argued that white environmentalism tends to focus on the aesthetic and ecological in place of the social, racial, economic, or political. A white garden educator told me, “There’s a new wave [in corrections] that is more ecologically responsible. We are active in the green industry. For me that makes it, I don’t want to say, more ‘authentic.’”

What often makes it legitimate for folks is the connection to urban greening, not its grounding in, say, food or racial justice organizing or abolitionist activism. This lack of deep engagement with environmental racism further enables their work to be co-opted by DOCs and the media.

The Problem with ‘Recidivism’ and ‘Rehabilitation’

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Finally, a fixation on the relationship between prison garden participation and reducing recidivism runs counter to much of the positivity that can be found in the garden. The problem lies in our obsession with blaming the individual, born from our modern concept of criminality, which has roots in classism, racism, and xenophobia—in particular, the condemnation of Blackness, an effort by white elites at the turn of the 19th century to link Blackness to deviance and criminalize people of color.

As a result, we end up concocting individualistic “rehabilitative” solutions to what are, in fact, structural injustices: institutionalized racism, extreme wealth inequality, severe socioeconomic and educational disadvantage, criminalization of the poor and people of color, failing social infrastructures, failing public education, the militarization of the police, needless prison construction, and a justice system that centers retribution in place of repair.

Despite these realities, incarcerated people are eternally labeled “criminals” and “deviant” individuals who require “correction.” Even the American Institute of Architects took up this call in its 2010 report, “Green Guide to Justice,” hailing “sustainable” prison industries, like cultivation and landscaping, as the “single most effective tool of institutional control and prisoner rehabilitation,” preparing incarcerated people for “eventual return to society” by “channeling deviant behavior into acceptable norms.”

The garden is marked as a pathway to independence when the rest of the prison is designed to repress, control, and dehumanize. And upon reentry, when formerly incarcerated people return to a state of food apartheid, rampant discrimination, meager resources, and continued over-policing, they’re expected to accept this injustice and make it all work. These truths are so undeniable that even the field of psychology, long a torchbearer of criminal pathology, is beginning to acknowledge the social and economic injustices at the root of incarceration.

In her foundational writing, Angela Davis describes a core challenge of prison abolition, which involves, in the short-term, doing “the work that will create more humane, habitable environments for people in prison without bolstering the permanence of the prison system.” Can the prison garden community navigate this tightrope and become a net-positive force for abolitionism?

Kanav Kathuria, for one, acknowledges the challenge of enacting change within an oppressive, tightly controlled system. Still, he believes there is a need for more resolute engagement with a difficult dialogue around political strategy.

“[We should ask questions like]: Who are you accountable to? How do you build power? Ultimately, how do you challenge and dismantle the reach and authority of carceral institutions themselves?,” Kathuria asks. “Without centering a lens of self-determination, well-meaning organizations stay rooted in reform and do little to confront the inherent violence of prison as well as the broader social, political, and economic conditions that track people into prison in the first place.”

Evan Hazelett is a graduate of the Master in Urban Planning program at Harvard where he studied racism in agrifood systems, racial capitalism, urban political ecology/economy, and carceral geography, and wrote a master's thesis on prison gardens and the green prison. He is currently the Research & Advocacy Manager at Berkeley Food Network, and will soon start a PhD program in Geography at the University of Toronto. Read more >

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