Human Flower Project

Gardening in Prison

Do prison gardens teach job skills only, or are there social and emotional benefits from pulling weeds and watering “on the inside”? Georgia Silvera Seamans reflects and gathers some of the research, too.


Alcatraz inmate and gardener Joseph A. Simpson

Photo: Maggie Hallahan

By Georgia Silvera Seamans

I have lived in the San Franciso Bay Area for four years but never visited the island of Alcatraz.  I have postponed such a visit, waiting to take an out of town guest.  It seemed like a trip you would take once and preferably with a tourist.  But I came across a story about the gardens of Alcatraz in Via—the magazine for members of AAA, the American Automotive Association. Here were artichokes, agaves, and roses planted in the early 1900s as well as blackberry bushes and bulbs – some of the 140 plant species that grow on the island—blooming good reasons to visit anytime. The former federal prison, I learned, is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the National Park Service and the Garden Conservancy have partnered to restore plant life on the island.

imageMap of the Riker’s Island prison garden

Image: Corrections History

Unlike Alcatraz, Riker’s Island outside New York City is still an active prison facility, but it too features a garden.  The garden is the foundation of vocational farm and horticultural programs; James Jiler, a former Urban Resources Initiative (URI) community forestry intern, directs the horticulture project there.  His book Doing Time in the Garden has been on my reading wish list since its publication.  (I am embarrassed to write that I have not read the book which is a shame; I am a former URI intern.)  But what Jiler has done is incredible.  The job skills aspect of the program is very important.  Jiler writes in his preface:

The provision of jobs is exceedingly important for ex-offenders, for it keeps them productive, employed, and learning as they negotiate the difficult task of re-integrating back into society.

Having not read the book, I am not sure if it discusses the therapeutic effects of people-plant interactions.  Rachel and Stephen Kaplan have found that views of nature, even nearby nature like a tree from an office window, produce psychological benefits.  The Kaplans (1990) argue that observing everyday aspects of nature or moving through a variety of natural landscapes provides an “effortless fascination” that can restore an individual’s “directed attention capacity.”  In other research, Frances Kuo and her colleagues (1998) found that greenness measured by the presence of trees and grass, in the courtyards of public housing neighborhoods, is an important indicator of the use of space.  Specifically, their findings show that “the more vegetation associated with a resident’s apartment and building, the more she socialized with neighbors, the more familiar with nearby neighbors she was, and the greater her sense of community.”  Reduction in stress and positive socializing strike me as important elements in a prison environment.

imageGarden at Minidoka Internment Camp

near Jerome, Idaho

Photo: National Parks Service

Kenneth Helphand has written a book about Defiant Gardens, which he defines as “gardens created in extreme or difficult environmental, social, political, economic, or cultural conditions.”  The book is another one I have not read, and I missed Helphand’s February presentation at the University of California.  What I can contribute is this: visit his website.  My first written encounter with war gardens was an article by Anna Hosticka Tamura (2004) published in Landscape Journal.  Tamura stresses that internment camp gardens have been neglected by scholars of landscape architecture.  Writing about the effects of the camp’s garden, she argues that “the acts of creating and maintaining the ornamental gardens buffered the psychological and physical trauma of the incarceration experience.”

For the most part, I garden for the sheer pleasure of touching soil and leaf. But sometimes I garden because I know watering, deadheading, planting, and eating will steady my mind.  The garden can transform a traumatic space into a more bearable place and disruption—however temporarily—into a more peaceful state of mind.

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