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Prison Gardens: Systems Change from the Ground Up

November 4, 2014

By Beth Waitkus
All photos from the flower and vegetable gardens at San Quentin Prison

The power of gardens to transform lives could be no more evident than in a place as desolate as a prison. In colorless, environmentally and culturally harsh environments, prison gardens cultivate a sacred oasis of hope and the possibility of change.

Beth & Guys in Flower Garden 2013

More than 2.2 million people are incarcerated in the US, with a national recidivism rate of 76%. According to Attorney General Eric Holder: “…although incarceration has a role to play in our justice system, widespread incarceration at the federal, state and local levels is both ‘ineffective and unsustainable.’ It imposes a significant economic tax burden – totaling $80 billion in 2010 alone — and it comes with human and moral costs that are impossible to calculate.”

Although serving just a tiny percentage of the overall prison population, the Insight Garden Program (IGP) has worked with more than 1,000 people in two California prisons (with plans to expand nationally) — restoring lives through connection to nature.

Veggie Garden no peopleJPG

Combining outdoor whole systems gardening with an in-depth, ecological and systems-based curriculum, IGP has seen a deep drop in recidivism of its participants to 10% — compared to California’s 70%. It has also helped to seed a national prison garden movement from the ground up.

Recent research, featuring two control groups as well as IGP participants at San Quentin Prison, demonstrated that prison gardens and associated programming can profoundly contribute to transformative values re-identification, which is integral to a rehabilitative experience that inspires lasting change.

Flower Garden

Nature’s impact on the human spirit is magical. At San Quentin, men tend to a 1,200-square-foot organic flower garden, as well as a raised bed organic vegetable garden, with great care —nurturing plants, petting the bees, and naming the bugs. Diverse teams of people work together in an open flower garden on the prison yard with no fear of retribution from others, because the prison garden there is considered “neutral” territory and, indeed, sacred space.

When people in prison “tend” to the garden, they also start to tend to themselves and each other. They collectively become a community of care. As their sense of interconnectedness with all living things grows (by design), people shift from an egoistic “me” to a more interdependent “we,” reconnecting with family, community, and the natural world.

Finishing Veggie Garden Nov 2013

Charles Veggie Garden

In the ecosystem of a garden, people learn what strategies do and don’t support life and how their behavior can affect larger, living systems. Insights from the garden can then be transferred into a deeper understanding of one’s own internal systems and how one shows up in the world — a first step in shifting deeply rooted patterns of behavior from reaction to response.

Prison gardens can also have unintended, positive outcomes on a larger scale. When building the raised bed organic vegetable garden at San Quentin, everyone from administration to custody officers got involved. Prison officers proudly named it the “Victory Garden” because it was finally built after a long five-year approval process. Progress was only possible because of the program’s collaborative approach to change with all stakeholders. Indeed, prisoners aren’t the only ones benefiting from growing living systems inside prison walls.

Yarrow Mixed


Beyond California, a significant movement to “green prisons” is also sprouting…from Washington to Indiana and Ohio and the East Coast. The magic of bringing whole garden systems, composting, and green trades to prisons is that administrators begin to understand the economic, social, and environmental benefits of sustainable, holistic practices. And people living in prison can learn the life and work skills necessary to become leaders in their communities, productive members of society, and stewards of the environment.

And in prisons, restoration of lives through gardening is gaining support from the ground up! As Henry David Thoreau once said, “Show me you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”

Beth Waitkus is the Founder and Director of the Insight Garden Program, which is currently planning for national expansion. IGP is a sponsor of the 2014 Biodynamic Conference.

Learn more in person at the IGP’s exhibit November 14 and 15 at the 2014 Biodynamic Conference in Louisville, Kentucky.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 4, 2014 1:15 pm

    This is wonderful!

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