Horticultural Therapy as Rehabilitative Reform in the American Prison System

“My dorm is like winter, dark and cold, and this class is like spring.  Not all plants make it through the winter, but with the help of this class, I will make it to spring”.

-an Insight Garden Program participant at Avenal State Prison

The United States has the highest per-capita incarceration rate in the world, surpassing any other nation.  Currently, more than 50 percent of former inmates will re-offend within three years. The estimated burden to the American taxpayer is more than $80 billion annually.  Could horticultural therapy, as the foundation of a rehabilitative program, curtail the rate of recidivism and reduce the human cost of incarceration?

Prison reform in the US has become politicized in recent years.  Two sides of this issue have emerged, punishment vs rehabilitation.  Punitive reform has been the focus of the US prison system since the 1970’s.  Prisoners who suffer from stress related illness, have insufficient job skills and few support services to navigate the transition of re-entry are being released back into society.  Scandinavian countries take a different approach, one of rehabilitation and “normalization”.  The outcome has been the successful release of prisoners, who are adequately equipped to re-enter society, thereby lowering the incidence of re-offending.  Today, Norway has the lowest recidivism rate in the world, at 20 percent.  A more humane approach to incarceration is obviously working.

Multiple research studies have been conducted, regarding which rehabilitation programs are most effective in preparing incarcerated individuals for re-entry.  Not surprisingly, horticultural therapy has been documented as a proven pathway to psychological and physical well-being for inmates.  In addition, educational and vocational rehabilitation goals can be easily integrated within horticultural therapy.

Today, 15 states offer courses in horticulture, landscaping and master gardener training to inmates.  One such program is the Insight Garden Program at Avenal State Prison in Avenal, California.  Calliope Correia, an HTI graduate, has been involved with IGP at Avenal State Prison (ASP) since its inception in 2017.  Calliope admits, she has worked with a lot of people and a lot of different populations providing HT, but never considered working in a prison setting.  Yet, after attending an initial meeting to learn about how IGP operates, she was hooked.  “The idea of creating beauty in a very harsh environment drew me in.  The program was centered around the belief that by growing a garden and learning about the natural world, one can grow their inner self and their being”.

Avenal State Prison is a medium security institution for men, located in a small, farming community southwest of Fresno, California.  Two of six prison yards are designated for the Insight Garden Program.  The first program was established at ASP in 2017 and a second program was established in 2018.  Calliope started as a volunteer in 2017 and became Program Manager of C Yard in 2018.  She describes the yard as initially having, “a few canna lilies and palm trees scattered sparsely around the yard, for the most part it is barren and dry.  It’s a prison like you would envision any prison, with large metal gates, chain-link fences and razor wire sectioning off different yards”.  The garden space is roughly 50 x 100 feet.  Before any plants could be added, the soil needed to be amended.  “During the first 6 months of our class, we brought in 25 tons of compost, straw, comfrey leaves, coffee grounds and bark and worked to build up the soil”.  Today the garden contains a variety of drought-tolerant plants woven into a unique garden design created by class participants.

Insight Garden Program uses a holistic curriculum that nurtures both the inner and outer gardener.  The year-long program is facilitated in four learning arcs.   Participants work on their “inner gardener” through meditation, emotional processing and eco-therapy work.  This is combined with “outer gardener” activities such as garden design, permaculture gardening techniques, plant biology instruction and re-entry skills.  Calliope explains, “We spend a good deal of time talking about the circle of life, ecosystems and how every living thing affects everything on a large scale.  We are not individuals; we are all a part of everything.  The guys used this lesson in each aspect of the garden [design] and each area holds a special meaning”.   The collaborative effort has resulted in a vibrant garden which includes, raised beds, a pathway bordered with wood rounds, a meditation circle, a dry riverbed, a yin-yang symbol and a flower garden in the shape of a snake (planted with New Gold Lantana and Myoporum and Echinacea eyes) waiting in the grass (Rush) for a bird to visit the bird garden (planted with Saliva, Ceanothus, Cistus and California Fuchsia).

“This is the first time I have touched a flower in 10 years.  I can’t tear it apart it’s too beautiful”.  –  IGP participant, during a plant dissection activity.

The garden in C yard is located far from the visiting public. It is only accessible to program facilitators and participants, but its beauty reaches out to others.  “It is visible to everyone on the yard (staff, residents, etc.) but at this time, only participants in the class have [physical] access to the garden space.  We often have various people on the yard stop by and comment and interact with us through the fence.  The garden space is a visual focal point in the yard and even though there isn’t access to be inside the space the beauty resonates through the fences”.  The garden is also attracting other natural elements. “The purple Lantana blooms continuously and the garden is host to a variety of butterflies, moths, and insects.  A hawk visited our garden, eating a squirrel right on the garden…a very intense and symbolic experience”.

As positive as this experience has been for Calliope, working within the walls of a prison presents unique challenges.  “The intensity of prison can be a very emotional experience. Remembering to take time for self-care and healing is crucial”.  The rules and regulations at ASP must be strictly followed, without exception.  IGP facilitators must be patient, resourceful and innovative. “Building a garden in prison also brought in a new aspect of design and planting ideas.  Having to get approval for every single item, plant and material that goes in and that goes out is a lesson in organization and responsibility.  You can’t just run to the hardware store if you don’t have enough irrigation parts!”

Positive change and growth are at the core of IGP.  Calliope has observed dramatic transformations within the class participants.  “I never feel like I can adequately articulate the transformations, or the experience.  It’s amazing, incredible to witness.  To watch them become comfortable in the class, to share, to relate their own lives to plants and nature…the whole thing is incredible!”

Calliope co-facilitates the program with a former inmate who served 25 years of a life sentence.  Seven of those years were served at Avenal State Prison.  Since his release Arnold Trevino has earned a master’s degree in social work and holds a full-time position at Fresno State University.  Calliope has tremendous respect for Arnold and all he has accomplished despite the odds against him.  “They [the inmates] see themselves in him and see what they can achieve.  The two of us make an incredible team and it resonates with the participants”.

There is of course, more to be accomplished in the field of prison rehabilitative reform.  One point is clear, programs that use nature and gardening as a therapeutic modality are cost effective, provide a pathway to emotional well-being and furnish job skills training for successful re-entry. Rikers Island Jail in New York has the oldest gardening program in the nation.  The “GreenHouse” at Rikers Island (https://www.htinstitute.org/2015-spring-newsletter/#warming-up-to-spring-at-rikers-island) began in 1997.  This program reports a 40 percent lower recidivism rate than the general prison population.  The Insight Garden Program at San Quentin Prison reports similar results.  Critics point to the fact that participants for horticultural programs are carefully chosen, those with a history of serious or violent crimes are not eligible.  Therefore, graduates of these programs are less likely to re-offend to begin with.

“Once they become comfortable and engage in the class, it is wonderful to watch them break through some tough exteriors.  We become a community… I would love to see an IGP class on every yard of every prison.” -Calliope Correia IGP Program Director at Avenal State Prison

An unforeseen benefit is impact of the work on the individuals who facilitate gardening programs.  As Calliope reflects, “Through the work of IGP, I have also experienced my own transformation.  I have learned so much about the human experience and an even deeper understanding of the crucial importance of human beings to be connected to the natural world.  Together we have created something beautiful that doesn’t just exist within the prison walls but carries into the outside world”.

For more information about the Insight Garden Program-

http://insightgardenprogram.org/

A link to a short video highlighting Arnold’s journey. https://abc30.com/localish/25-years-to-life-changed-former-prisoner-working-to-help-inmates-succeed/5606220/

References

Deady, Carolyn W. “Incarceration and Recidivism: Lessons from Abroad”, Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy, March 2014. Accessed January 8, 2020, https://pellcenter.org/new-report-incarceration-and-recidivism-lessons-from-abroad/

Schiffman, Richard. ” The Secret Jailhouse Garden of Rikers Island”, New York Times, October 4, 2019. Accessed January 8, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/04/nyregion/garden-rikers-island.html

Mercola, Joseph. “Real Rehabilitation-The Benefits of Organic Garden in Prisons” Wake up World, December 4, 2016 Accessed January 15, 2020, https://wakeup-world.com/2016/12/04/real-rehabilitation-the-benefits-of-organic-gardening-in-prisons/