From Our Hands, Things Can Grow: Visiting Gardens Behind Bars (Part 1)

There’s something hopeful or resolute about giving life the space to thrive behind prison walls. Prisons are really desolate constructions. The people living and working there are far away, behind metal and stone. That’s why the Insight Garden Program is such a gift – the fact that the project’s participants can transform barren spaces behind bars into places that invite life is like magic.

The Insight Garden Program (IGP) transforms prison spaces, and lives, with vocational gardening and landscaping training to help people in prison reconnect with self, the community and nature. They facilitate weekly classes in several prisons across the state focused on what IGP calls the “inner” and “outer” gardener.

A few months ago, Insight Garden invited the Ella Baker Center (EBC) to visit some of their garden sites in San Joaquin and Kings counties. Our work at the Ella Baker Center – closing youth prisons and repealing laws that contribute to mass incarceration – has always been made stronger by our connections with folks inside prisons and jails. The Policy Team (Emily and I) along with fellow EBC staff members, Ash and Norma, happily accepted that invitation – glad for the opportunity to build and grow with the program’s participants.

Gardeners and volunteers with the Insight Garden Program at the Central California Women's Facility. Photo courtesy of the Insight Garden Program.

Thank you to IGP for being a thing! On the basis, it might seem a little “crunchy,” gardening behind bars. But when I walked into these facilities, I saw how these gardens were an oasis for the spirit in a very desolate place. In this desert of steel and concrete, there is a space that’s cared for, so that life – animal, plant, and spiritual – can begin to thrive.

The first prison we visited was one of California’s medical facilities in Stockton where most people with serious medical needs, and an increasingly aged population from across the state are housed. Out amongst Stockton’s golden, hot hills is a sprawling landscape of grey and beige. Regular and thorough herbicide treatments make sure that nothing growing impedes the view of stone and metal construction. 

However, also here, fenced-off from the main yard, is the healthiest patch of earth. The garden is in bloom! Two hummingbirds make their flittering rounds to the blooms worked from tiny seeds by IGP participants. 

After the group holds space for meditation, we move to the classroom where Emily, Ash and I introduce ourselves and talk about the power-building we do at the Ella Baker Center. It’s when we talk about our fights in policy that a light turns on in everyone’s mind.

“That was you!?!” is the reaction to our work behind AB 45 – a bill to stop charging copays in jails and prisons for doctor visits and prescribed appliances, like dentures and walking canes. The men began to point out their glasses and the special diabetic shoes afforded them now that copays are no longer a thing!

All of a sudden, we weren’t random visitors there to look at budding plants; we were the folks fighting with them from the outside, seeing each other for the first time.

The next day, our visit to the Central California Women’s Facility near Chowchilla felt different than our visit in Stockton.

Unearthing Rehabilitation at Central California Women’s Prison

The garden was larger, more open. Sunflowers were giving up the seeds they’d worked on all summer (surprisingly, tinier in nature than what you’d find at the store).

EBC staff with volunteers from the Insight Garden Program at the Central California Women's Facility: Joody Marks, Cori Davis, Derick Morgan, Norma Orozco, Emily Harris and Angelica Costilla-Mancha. Photo: Katerina Friesen, courtesy of the Insight Garden Program.

What was also different about this visit was how complex the women’s sentences felt. After the “aha!” moment from Emily and I sharing “this is what we do,” the women in the program opened up about their sentences. More often, their convictions involved violence in defense of their children, or cases where they were abused by a partner. 

At the women’s facility, especially, the sentences handed them didn’t seem fair. Women’s facilities aren’t as resourced as the mens’. They were given years behind stone walls, but without simple access to rehabilitative classes and programs meant to bring them back home to their families. Fewer classes are available in the women’s prison; fewer opportunities for the rehabilitation that the California Department of Corrections took on as part of its mission not so long ago.

One participant shared how she was barred from joining a rehabilitative program because her work detail – wiping tables – took precedence over her class schedule. This unfortunately is quite common. Currently, people in prison aren’t allowed to change their work schedules to suit their programming needs. Year-long waiting lists and a lack of a voice in shaping their own rehabilitation means that a lot of people are left stuck in the wrong place.

Leaving the women’s prison, I’m thankful for their beautiful garden’s reminder that from our hands, things can grow. 

Our next visit was to Avenal State Prison where – after driving past some sheep, a solar farm, and all the world’s a’monds – we found gold!

Read more about our visit to Avenal in Part 2.