From Our Hands, Things Can Grow: Visiting Gardens Behind Bars (Part 2)

Cultivating Connections Despite Barriers at Avenal Prison

Gardeners tending to blooming flowers at Avenal State Prison. All photos courtesy of the Insight Garden Program.

Off of the main yard at Avenal State Prison, fenced off, is their garden – one of the garden sites that the Ella Baker Center (EBC) had a chance to visit a few months ago to see the Insight Garden Program (IGP) in action. The program transforms prison spaces, and lives, through weekly classes and vocational gardening training at several prisons across the state focused on what IGP calls the "inner" and "outer" gardener.

In Part 1, I talked about our visits to one of California's medical facilities in Stockton and the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, where the Policy Team (Emily and I) along with fellow EBC staff members, Ash and Norma, were glad to build and grow with the program’s participants.

On our last visit, after a drive – that thankfully, was less than four hours long, as I was expecting – past some sheep, a solar farm, and all the world’s a’monds, we came to Avenal State Prison where we found gold! Compared to the blooms I’d seen during our visits in the days before, these plants seemed modest. Although, plants are thriving there in the desert under barbed wire, which speaks to an impressive amount of work.

The garden at Avenal State Prison.

A shallow ditch that I imagine in the rain as a moat, frames the garden. We cross a small bridge to dark wood chips and earth built up with used coffee grounds. On one end, a bright red, farm-shaped bird house, currently vacant. On the other end, a sundial stands navel high. It looks like it’s marble, but it’s not. All of this is made by hand!

We walk into the classroom. With everyone in a circle, the program instructor Kaliope gives a run down of the agenda, and Emily breaks down our work at the Ella Baker Center. Then I hear one of the participants translating for some of the guys in the program. He’s killing it! 

The part of my ear that remembers my life in Panam√° is catching his translation. He’s right in-step with the class discussion: sentencing reform; technicalities in passing legislation; earlier, a guided meditation. Everything spoken that day, he ferried across the language gap. 

His translation was gold! For those in the group who didn’t speak English, neither the IGP instructors nor Emily and I had much prepared that could reach them. Again, I witnessed a disparity in access to rehabilitative programming. At the women’s prison, policy implementation left some women out. Here at Avenal, language accessibility was the greater barrier. I imagine our translator watering the thirsty plants softly huddled around him. Shortly into our talk with this group, our conversation has a different rhythm. We leave room for the echo of translation. 

One of my happiest memories from this visit is from Ramon, a program participant incarcerated at Avenal. With eyes wide, he wondered, “You came here all the way from Oakland!?” In disbelief, he would ask two more times.

Later, when our visit was over, as we made our way to leave the prison, a hawk made a meal of one of the squirrels that found the garden. While flying away, we were told it hit one of the fences. Now, it was dining on the ground, outside our class. We were to walk straight to the gates of the garden area, single file, giving the hawk a wide breadth. It would catch itself on the barbed wire of the fence, before it flew to perch on the corner of a building across the main yard. We all just saw the hawk learn how dangerous prisons are built to be.

As we walked back across the main yard, it reminded me of a cinder-block baseball diamond. We ‘round the bases in reverse while the sun leans into the mountains behind the prison. 

Emily and I felt really proud that we had traveled all the way from Oakland. 

These visits to IGP’s gardens were such a gift. That in these utterly barren places created with prisons – where even rehabilitation inside is hard to come by – there’s this wonderful program, reminding us in a very elemental way that with a little intention and hope, life springs anew. Thank you IGP for being a thing!

Gardeners and volunteers with the Insight Garden Program at Avenal State Prison.