Jamala Taylor didn’t grow up a gardener. “Inner cities have more liquor stores than trees,” he quips.
So there is some irony in the fact that his introduction to gardening came in a place that few would associate with greenery: California State Prison in Los Angeles County.
Taylor, who spent 31 years shuttling through maximum security prisons―15 of them in solitary confinement― stumbled on a sign-up sheet for a garden program in the prison day room shortly after emerging from his last stint in solitary in 2015.
Hoping to adjust to life in the general population, he scribbled his name. “I thought it was a great opportunity to get my hands in some dirt,” he said.
“It turned out to be so much more than that.”
Taylor soon became one of the eager recruits to the Insight Garden Program (IGP), a correctional horticulture program that exposes incarcerees to vocational gardening, landscaping training―and perhaps almost as significantly, the chance at self-reflection.
IGP is now offered in 11 California prisons, one juvenile correctional facility in Indiana, and one Ohio correctional facility.
For Taylor it was life-changing.
The program helped him through his incarceration and post-prison life. IGP provided him a “safe space”―an opportunity to “speak freely from the heart” and “be introspective about the mistakes I’ve made,” when he was an inmate-participant. Then, when he was being considered for parole, IGP staffers drafted letters to the parole board to bolster his case.
Finally, after release, his IGP support system visited him in transitional housing when he tested positive for COVID-19.
As a program graduate, Taylor joined IGP as a re-entry coordinator. Five years after that first class, Taylor is part of IGP’s team of formerly incarcerated individuals who help program participants transition to life on the outside.
“IGP is connected to everything good in my life today,” Taylor told The Crime Report.
Taylor’s story is a testament to the power of permaculture programs for people in prison.
Permaculture, which is defined as the cultivation of ”agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient,” is used by supporters as a more accurate description of what such programs are meant to achieve than horticulture, which is generally oriented towards growing and planting.
Conceived as a means of reducing recidivism, it’s about personal self-sufficiency and sustainability as much as it is about growing flowers and vegetables. It took root in the late 1980s, when New York Horticulture Society board member Barbara Margolis funded a small garden on the grounds of the sprawling Rikers Island detention facility.
Academics have praised the concept.
In her synthesis of scholarly research on prison permaculture, Arcadia University’s Rachel D. Jenkins said most studies affirm that the programs “enhance incarcerated individuals’ well-being by bolstering self-efficacy, assuaging symptoms of anxiety and depression, and reducing recidivism rates.”
Less than 10 percent of IGP participants are reincarcerated, compared to the nationwide recidivism rate of 55 percent. The non-profit estimates that its California programs have saved an estimated $40 million in the cost of rehousing prisoners sent back behind bars.
Other prison gardening programs report similar successes. The GreenHouse at Rikers Island reports a recidivism rate among its participants that is 40 percent lower than the general population.
‘A Sense of Freedom’
Kelsey Timler, who co-authored a study called Growing Connection Beyond Prison Walls: How a Prison Garden Fosters Rehabilitation and Healing for Incarcerated Men, said correctional gardening can provide participants a “real sense of freedom.”
“The men spoke a lot about feeling like it was an escape,” said Timler, a Ph,D. candidate at the University of British Columbia. “Being in the sunshine and working with their hands and watching plants grow.”
Although correctional gardening programs must contend with the bureaucratic prison system, occasional hostility from correctional officers, and limited resources, it’s a step towards what some advocates say is a way to eliminate walled prisons altogether―for inmates who qualify.
Facilitators call it “inner gardening.”
By fostering a comfortable, caring environment, programs like IGP offer an emotional “de-thawing”―a “way in” for participants to confront the circumstances that precipitated their incarceration, says IGP acting co-director Amanda Berger.
“I’ve seen a lot of people who aren’t ready to deal with the impact of their crime or trauma head on,” Berger, who ran the San Quentin program for four and a half years, said in an interview with The Crime Report.
“[IGP] is a space that people can enter with the safety to start unpacking.”
Facilitators presenting practices like weeding and pruning as applicable to personal relationships. Indeed, although IGP’s name foregrounds horticulture, prison gardening is only a sliver of the services the organization provides.
Such scope enabled IGP to weather COVID-19, which devastated correctional programming, intensifying the isolation of already vulnerable individuals. IGP staffers spent the pandemic strengthening their mindfulness-based curriculum and enhancing their “wraparound” re-entry program―a task that received added urgency following the emergency release of approximately 8,000 incarcerated people in California.
Key to this program is Joshua Gunner Johnson, IGP’s re-entry manager who helps 81 program participants acclimate to life on the outside.
Johnson earned an associate degree in social and behavioral sciences at California State University in Sacramento, where he enrolled after his release from prison with help from guidance of Project Rebound, a California program that assists formerly incarcerated people earn a college degree.
After Johnson graduated Summa Cum Laude, IGP hired him as Northern California re-entry coordinator.
All of IGP’s re-entry coordinators, in fact, are former incarcerees, one reason the program has been especially successful, Johnson said.
“When I got out after 18 years of incarceration, I had this giant gap in my resume,” he said. “I wasn’t sure what I was going to do to make a successful living.
[After IGP hired me], I didn’t realize the opportunities that would be available doing this kind of work. I love the work that we do. I get to relive my own re-entry by helping someone else.”
The Challenges of Correctional Gardening
For all the introspection and employment opportunities they provide, prison gardening programs face significant challenges.
Since institutional regulations impede access to many prisons, it takes significant patience and pragmatism to simply initiate prison gardens, programs that require a working relationship with correctional institutions.
Jeff Anderson learned firsthand that the process of planting a prison garden is far from rosy, when he started a gardening program at the Southern New Mexico Correctional Facility (SNMCF) in Las Cruces, NM.
Anderson’s involvement began in the form of a 2016 letter from two SNMCF inmates.
“They wanted to do something out there besides break sand,” said Anderson, a New Mexico State University Agronomy and Horticulture Agent. With the enthusiasm of an agronomy aficionado, Anderson agreed (“blindly,” he later said) to establish a correctional agriculture program affiliated with the prison’s maximum security wing.
But his initial entrance to SNMCF blunted some of his early excitement.
Guards confiscated his metal gardening tools upon entrance, per prison policy. When Anderson met the 16 men who would come to cultivate a garden in the New Mexico desert, he lacked even a shovel.
“I’m standing there looking at sand and barbed wire — without tools,” he said. “I’m wondering, ‘How are we going to get this garden started?”
In the end, Anderson improvised, instructing participants to dig into dirt with the flat pieces of caliche rock dotting the desert.
“Next thing you know, we were all out there cultivating the earth.”
Light on resources but heavy on enthusiasm, the group of gardeners began watering plants with buckets of water, building raised beds to protect produce from rabbits, and carpeting the garden with compost. In a matter of months, participants transformed that endless stretch of sand into a cornucopia of watermelon, cantaloupe, tomatoes, peppers, onions, and turnips.
Anderson managed to chip away at resource constraints by bolstering his reputation among program participants and correctional officers.
Many prison gardening programs rely on people like Anderson, agriculture experts with an immense investment in program participants. But the model — which relies on individual effort to preserve effective programs — is somewhat precarious, Timler said.
“As with a lot of programs, [prison gardens] really rely on a few key passionate people — which is great, but not necessarily sustainable long-term,” she said.
Another barrier is the uncertain circumstances under which programs operate. Currently, most prison gardening programs operate at the whim of wardens, a sometimes contentious, sometimes collaborative arrangement that can determine the fate of individual initiatives.
Good press, evidence-based results, and improvements in incarceree behavior have accounted for the recent push to preserve and expand prison garden programs, most of which receive support from corrections authorities.
Supporters are the first to concede there are limits to the model.
Berger said she knows prison gardening programs aren’t a perfect panacea for the ills of incarceration. For one, program participants aren’t allowed to eat the food they grow.
“It’s hard to be doing a curriculum around food justice and food access and growing things and then not share that with the population,” Berger said.
Out West, the growing conditions aren’t optimal, either. Compacted soil limits root development, and persistent droughts threaten plant health.
Despite the bureaucratic, organizational, and climatic challenges that undercut the widespread implementation of prison gardening programs, evidence attests to their success. For one, personal transformations abound.
In New Mexico, Anderson said, several former SNMCF participants have launched successful landscaping businesses post-release.
Timler said one participant involved in the program she studied — an initiative that distributed food farmed by incarcerated men to local food banks — became a fixture in the foodbank, eventually accepting a position as a full-time volunteer.
And six years after Taylor’s first IGP class, he now takes part in funders’ meetings, talking finances with other employees.
And he’s still gardening.
“I get a great deal of joy out of getting my hands dirty,” he said, adding that he now helps landscape his sister’s property.
“It’s like the gift that keeps on giving,” he said of IGP. “It’s bigger than my dreams.”
While some prison garden programs emphasize personal improvement, others have massive produce yields to show for their success.
A collaboration between the Somerset County Health Department and Eastern Correctional Institution (ECI), one prison gardening program harvested 12.5 tons of produce last season. ECI’s gardening program, which has expanded from a small land plot on prison property to a multi-compound endeavor, aims to address food insecurity in Somerset County.
The rural community has two grocery stores located a “good 40 minutes” away from some residents, said Sharon Lynch, the health department’s preventive services and communications director.
Lynch helps distribute the produce program participants cultivate — from squash and tomatoes to herbs and eggplant — to foodbanks, churches, and daycares in Somerset and neighboring Wicomico County, all at no cost.
“The morning of pickup, it comes straight out of the ground,” she said. “Dirt is still on some of the vegetables — it’s that fresh. You know it’s different from what you buy at the grocery store.”
Beyond the benefit to community partners, the program is a “fantastic restorative justice program,” said Mark Vernarelli, the media relations manager for Maryland’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“The program gives inmates a work ethic — and the chance to pay society back by feeding the struggling,” he said.
Although the program hinges on the close-knit connection between the Health Department and ECI, Lynch maintains that the model is fit for national replication. But for critics of correctional gardening, the question isn’t how to best expand, but whether such programs should proliferate at all.
The Abolitionist Critique: Beyond Incarceration
Can prison gardens point the way towards a new and different model of incarceration—or more particularly towards the end of America’s current model of mass incarceration?
Some argue that while prison permaculture programs offer inmates remedial benefits, they do little to change the conditions of confinement.
“Are [garden] programs actually tearing down the carceral state and building up alternatives rooted in care?” asks Kanav Kathuria, the founder of the Maryland Food & Abolition Project,
Ultimately, Kathuria said, non-profits that introduce garden programming into prisons are “contradictory.”
They offer personal benefits to inmates but they also reinforce the “prison-industrial complex” by forging closer partnership with food distribution companies, Kathuria said.
The Maryland Food & Abolition Project offers in many ways an alternative prison gardening model by connecting Black and brown farmers to food distribution opportunities at Maryland’s Jessup Correctional Institution.
He points out that the notion of inmates working the land has a deep roots in the Jim Crow south where massive farming operations were built on prison labor.
“A lot of times, these prison farms are operating on actual plantations,” he said. “Folks are exploited, and forced to labor under conditions very reminiscent of slavery and convict leasing.”
Unlike correctional gardening, which introduces programs into prisons, the Maryland Food & Abolition Project remains committed to the interrelated goals of “mitigating the dehumanizing experience of eating on the inside” by “building up communal forms of self-determination on the outside,” Kathuria said.
Timler agreed that correctional gardening programs needed to be explicitly divorced from the the kind of exploitive agriculture that characterized many American correctional institutions.
“[They] need to be based in relationships and not a one-way charity model of food-gifting,” she said. “To have a transformative potential, [programs] have to acknowledge the deep history of harm that prison farms have done.”
Many IGP staffers, in fact, say prison garden programs offer a “profound” experience of a different approach to incarceration.
“You have somebody who has not smelled basil or cilantro for decades, and for them to see it from seed and smell it and even taste it — it’s a pretty profound experience,” said Michelle Mondia, a program manager at the IGP program at the California Institution for Women.
“You’re surrounded with concrete and barbed wire, and all of a sudden you see colors and insects and life.”
To Berger, the current crisis of over-incarceration — California’s correctional facilities currently contain 100,000 people, many of whom must demonstrate rehabilitation to gain parole — necessitate programs like IGP, which provide a path to a meaningful life, within and beyond prison.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done for people to be able to leave prison in a more healed place,” she said.
“The huge population of people who are in prison have every right to access healing and transformative and human dignity-centered programming. They’re there until the day that prisons are abolished.”
Taylor’s experience confirms the potential.
Even today, when he describes the garden he cultivated inside California prison walls, there’s an unmistakable note of reverence.
“It was a lot like entering a library,” said Taylor. “You instinctively lowered your voice.”
Eva Herscowitz is a TCR staff contributor. This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.