Despite the billions of dollars we spend every year on maintaining and expanding prisons, the national recidivism rate continues to hover around 66 percent and crime rates have remained more or less the same. This leaves many of us feeling helpless about a broken system. However, there are some beacons of light—alternative, grassroots programs that literally “plant” themselves at prisons and jails, encourage rehabilitation, personal growth, and positive self-image, and have much lower numbers in their alumni’s recidivism rates than state and national average. Today, we are talking about the many garden programs that are being implemented in California and across the country!
Spotlight on the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin State Prison, which seeks to facilitate recovery and change by creating a community environment and connection to nature, both inside the prison and in the local community. Since its inception, IGP has built a vegetable garden in San Quentin’s medium security unit, and has collaborated with local nonprofit organizations like Planting Justice, to provide employment opportunities and other essential reentry services and support. The garden is maintained and cultivated by the the participants and the food they grow is donated to local charities in the Bay Area serving low-income communities.
The IGP staff and volunteers facilitate weekly classes focused on a holistic curriculum that tends to both the “inner” and “outer” gardener. The “inner gardener” classes integrate transformational tools such as meditation, emotional process work and eco-therapy–designed to plant seeds for change in the participants. In the flower and vegetable gardens, the men practice “outer gardening,” learning the basics of organic gardening, human/ecological systems and the “green jobs” industry.
Over the last 12 years, the program has served more than 1,000 participants, teaching useful gardening and landscaping skills while educating participants about the structural inequalities of the food industry and promoting individual and community efforts to achieve social justice. The work can be transformative: IGP reports that less than 10 percent of IGP participants who reenter the community have returned to jail or prison—saving the state $40 million. 
How is garden work so effective for promoting rehabilitation, self-care, resiliency, and health—and why would it help to reduce recidivism? It is not surprising, really. We know that exposure to nature is critical for children’s development and for building empathy — and we all know from personal experiences, that a connection to nature is essential to promote inner peace, wellbeing, and calm. Similarly, according to IGP’s cited research on people-plant relationships and horticultural therapy, the act of caring for plants includes the qualities of responsibility, empathy and discipline that also transfer to the interpersonal realm. By growing plants, people also “grow.” Providing access to nurturing, green, community spaces also encourages participation, facilitates the cultivation of healthy social relationships, and promotes healthy, safe, and sustainable community living. Gardening gives people an opportunity to learn important life skills in a safe and loving environment, to reconnect with themselves and their communities, and ultimately, to realize their full potential and find true meaning and purpose in their lives.
One thing we really love about the Insight Garden Program is that it thinks and works on a broader scale—looking for ways to expand its work and success to other prisons and other people across the country. IGP has a close working relationship with GreenPrisons.org — the only national resource that informs, educates, and trains correctional practitioners about all aspects of sustainable practices and services. It also informs, educates, and trains commercial entities about the correctional environment and its unique opportunities and challenges. These services are provided without cost to correctional practitioners and include a newsletter, webinars, regional forums and conference presentations. Pretty amazing!
We hope that other programs across the county expand and grow in a similar way. In fact, other garden programs have already seen similar rates of success and benefits for program participants. Members of Greenhouse, a garden rehabilitation at Riker’s Island Jail in New York, had recidivism rates below 10 percent. Participants of the Sandusky County Jail Garden in Ohio had recidivism rates of 18 percent, compared to the 40 percent recidivism rate of the jail’s general population. The program also saved the jail over $25,000 in food costs and donated over 375 of fresh-grown produce to local good pantries and soup kitchens.
Interested in creating a prison or jail project in your local community? Contact your local prison and/or jail administration, contact GreenPrisons.org, and get the conversation started!
Summer Law Clerk