Prison gardening is taking root and stretching its impact all across the United States.
The increasing number of organic vegetable gardens and composting programs being planted in prisons – a movement epitomized by the Sustainability in Prisons Project — means that municipalities and states are saving hundreds of thousands of dollars in carting fees while reducing the amount of prison food waste dumped into landfills. Food waste is composted as fertilizer for prison gardens that in turn provide healthy food for inmate meals and local food banks.
Just as important is the impact of prison gardens on the physical and mental health and wellbeing of inmates, and the ability to provide inmates with healthy food, and access to science and nature – and maybe a skill to help them remake their lives on release.
None of this was on my mind yet in 2009 when I was a couple of years into volunteering with the non-profit organization, Living Yoga, as a yoga teacher at Oregon’s prison for women. My education in prison gardening began that year, when the facility manager at the prison’s minimum security facility put out a call for volunteers to help revive the prison’s 10,000 square foot garden space.
In the two years that followed, I worked with a group of volunteers to provide the women at Coffee Creek the resources they needed to develop a productive vegetable and herb garden. Our work earned the trust of the inmates and the prison staff and helped spark a broader interest at the facility in sustainable practices.
In 2011 I was awarded a fellowship in Audubon’s Toyota Together Green program. Along with $10,000 in support for the garden program, the fellowship provided specialized training in conservation planning, outreach and evaluation, and the chance to work with gifted conservation professionals.
The Toyota TTG fellowship provided the help that was needed to kickstart the expansion of the garden into the main prison yard, where it has become an integral part of the institution’s environment and can be enjoyed by all 600 women incarcerated in the facility. We more than doubled the size of the garden to 23,000 feet, and began using vegetable scraps from the prison’s kitchen to feed worm bins and to create compost for our garden. We also partnered with the prison’s physical plant to redirect the 2800 lbs. of food waste generated daily to an outside composting facility.
The Together Green grant made it possible to leverage additional funding to build a greenhouse in the prison yard. Our new greenhouse has allowed us to increase our harvest and is also a classroom space for gardening education, which we have provided to over 100 women at the prison.
We hosted a graduation ceremony late this September for 40 inmates at Coffee Creek who completed a 5 week course in organic gardening. We celebrated with mint tea and zucchini carrot muffins made from the garden produce. We gathered to acknowledge the women’s accomplishment as well as their appreciation for being able to connect with nature while incarcerated, and to learn skills for a new life when they are released. One graduate wrote “this garden in prison has awakened a new interest in me and one that I intend on taking outside with me. I feel it will be one more skill in my tool box to keep me from coming back.”
Housed between the housing unit and the education building in the minimum security prison yard , and surrounded by tall, razor-wired topped fences and a lot of concrete, the prison garden produces more than 4000 lbs of organic produce per year. The program was identified by the Oregon Public Health Division as a key strategy in their 3 year Healthy Food Access Project at Coffee Creek. Funded by a grant from Kaiser Permanente, the project aims to improve health outcomes for the women at Coffee Creek by increasing access to fresh foods, and by supporting gardening and nutrition education at the prison.
We are grateful to Audubon and Toyota for their key support in launching this program, and for their belief in everyone’s potential to grow and engage in sustainable action. The garden program has benefited greatly from the credibility that comes from receiving support from Toyota and Audubon, and the opportunity has helped us form key partnerships which will ensure the development and sustainability of the garden at Coffee Creek going forward.
In addition to vegetables, we grow lots of flowers in the prison garden for their ability to attract pollinators and ward off pests, and because their beauty transforms the environment to one that is more peaceful and conducive to positive change. In the words of one inmate gardener, “these gardens are important and relevant, but most of all they heal and restore.”
–Photo: CCCF Greenhouse/Debbie Rutt