Gardens, Prisons, Connection, and Community

by Patty A. Gray, Garden Program Director

PattyGrayEarlier this year, I had one of the most remarkable experiences of my life when I followed Amy Boyer, Program Manager with Insight Garden Program, through the gates of the California Health Care Facility (CHCF), a prison located just south of Stockton. Along with two other visitors, I was undergoing a trial visit to see if I might be a good fit as a regular volunteer with the program. Insight Garden Program has a constant need for volunteers; and so if you are looking for a challenging and inspiring volunteering opportunity, this post is for you. Further down I share ways to get involved, including meeting Amy in person at an event on Pacific’s campus next week.

Insight Garden Program (IGP) transforms the lives of people who are incarcerated by creating garden spaces inside prison grounds and then connecting inmates to the plants in ways that help them to see themselves as worthy beings who can thrive if they become deeply rooted and reach for nourishing influences, just as plants do. Founded by Beth Waitkus 15 years ago, IGP now has gardens inside eight prisons in California. At the time of my visit, CHCF was next on their list for establishing a garden.

Our little group was heading for a small chapel deep inside the prison grounds, but first we had to make a progressive transition from ‘outside’ to ‘inside’, passing through a couple of checkpoints and several rattling metal gates, and trekking across the barren grounds of the prison. Amy has done this more times than she can count, and she led us calmly, coaching us along the way about what to expect. I did not see so much as a weed anywhere as we walked, let alone any verdant green landscaping – just tall chain-link fences, guard towers, pavement, and desolate expanses of gravelly, sandy-colored ground.

For Amy, bringing a bit of garden green to such bleak and barren spaces is only a small piece of the transformation. The program is really about building community – and not just among IGP’s participants, although that is of course important. But even more important is for people both inside and outside of the prison to recognize that they are members of the same community. The checkpoints and fences that so severely mark the difference between “inside” and “outside” can make a prison seem like an island; but the community is one whole, and it helps people on the inside to know that those on the outside know about them and care enough to connect. It can make a tremendous difference for them when they finally step outside the prison gates to freedom.

We finally reached the small chapel, situated inside its own fenced enclosure and surrounded by a yard just as barren as the rest of the prison. The people enrolled in Amy’s course were waiting for us outside, and they greeted Amy with genuine warmth – she had already worked through one semester with them and was well into the second. She coaxed everyone to move out into the yard and form a circle, and then she began to lead us through a meditative grounding exercise, starting by asking everyone to imagine they had roots extending deep into the earth, seeking out nutrients and cooling moisture.

As we stood there in the chapel yard, I noticed that there was, in fact, a bit of vegetation there, exactly three types of plants: Bermuda grass, bindweed, and cheeseweed – all prime examples of invasive weeds that were the bane of my existence as a tender of the Robb Garden on the campus of the University of the Pacific. I delighted both at the irony of finding only these tough customers growing on the grounds of a prison, and also at the glorious audacity of green growing things: what we consider an unwelcome weed in the garden is an inspiring example of the capacity of life to find a way in the seemingly most inhospitable of conditions. And in this place, these weeds were welcome harbingers: within a few weeks, a cultivated garden would be carved into this tough, dry ground, and the IGP’s participants could begin to observe not only the life of plants, but plant visitors, such as hummingbirds and magpies.

Eventually we went inside the chapel to sit down for the more formal instruction of Insight Garden Program’s curriculum. The prisoners were more talkative than any group of college students I’ve ever taught, and their comments were thoughtful and articulate. More than once I heard a profound observation that challenged or inspired me to deeper reflection. I came away having gained far more than I gave.

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This remarkable classroom dynamic was no fluke: Beth Waitkus explained to me how she worked with educators with neuroscience backgrounds to develop a curriculum that roots learning in practice. She also has grounded the work in appreciative inquiry: providing the opportunity for people to recognize their assets rather then dwell on their deficits. The program encourages them to identify strengths that can be valuable to the community when they return home. Amy says that many people inside have to think about what is really important to them, what really matters, how they can contribute to society – because they have to go before parole boards and convince them they are ready to be released. This work is not trivial, she says, and it can be really illuminating for everybody in the conversation.

Volunteers are an important part of this dynamic. Volunteers offer program participants an opportunity to hear about what is going on outside and to learn about other people’s lives. By the same token, program participants get to tell their own stories of their lives on the inside. As one young man told me, it meant a lot that someone from the outside came and looked him in the face and saw him as a fellow human being – in spite of our differences, in spite of the sharp markers of “inside” vs. “outside”.

I had desperately wanted to volunteer with the program, which is why I went on the prison visit in the first place – and the visit only confirmed for me that nothing could be more worthy of my time and effort. But I finally had to admit to myself, and to Amy, that my all-consuming job as Garden Program Director at University of the Pacific would not allow me to make the kind of commitment that was needed, even if it was only once a month. Then I realized there was one thing I could do: in the program’s own spirit of connecting people, I could help Amy to connect with potential volunteers in the Pacific community.

If you are over the age of 21, are comfortable in encounters with different cultures, are a good listener, and love to learn from other people, then volunteering with Insight Garden Program could be an extremely rewarding experience for you. You have a chance to find out first hand from Amy Boyer when she comes to give a talk at Pacific on October 26, 2:30pm, in the University Library’s Community Room. Join us!

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