Story by Krissi Khokhobashvili, Public Information Officer
Video by Dave Novick, Television Specialist
Photos by Eric Owens, CDCR Staff Photographer
Office of Public and Employee Communications

As a group of men bustled around a small garden, turning soil, installing irrigation and clearing rows for plants, an excited whisper started circulating, quickly turning into exclamations as the men noticed a hummingbird descend into the area to check out a new plant.

“It’s working!”

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These men are inmates at California State Prison-Solano (SOL), where they are tending a brand-new garden thanks to the Insight Garden Program (IGP). The prison administration made room not only for the drought-tolerant, pollinator-friendly garden, but also for classroom instruction ranging from plants and permaculture to communication and self-care.

“What’s special about the garden is the fact that people actually get to work in the soil, and really learn to nurture plants – and learn to nurture themselves in the process,” said Beth Waitkus, who founded IGP at San Quentin State Prison (SQSP) in 2002. “They tend to themselves like they tend to the plants. Our mission is to rehabilitate people by connecting them back to the earth, and in doing the garden we’re building community.”

Pedro Ramos said when he signed up for IGP he thought it was only about plants, but he quickly learned how the skills used to grow a garden are also used to connect families and foster relationships.

“This class – wow,” he said. “This class teaches me that to get in touch with the soil is not only about touching the soil, it’s about taking care of the soil and plants. It’s about doing community work.”

IGP’s success at SQSP made it an ideal candidate for CDCR’s Innovative Programming Grants program that aims to boost programs and increase volunteerism in prison. The first round of grant funding was awarded to nonprofits such as IGP that already operate successful prison programs, to enable them to expand to other institutions. First up for IGP is SOL, with gardens in the works for neighboring California Medical Facility and California State Prison-Los Angeles County in Lancaster.

Before putting spade to soil, the men spent nine months meeting inside the classroom, planning the garden, learning about plants, soil, garden architecture and concepts. They designed the garden at SOL, composed of drought-tolerant plants, most of them native to California. As the garden grows, it will attract different types of bees, birds and butterflies, providing even more for participants and visitors to enjoy.

Amy Boyer, who oversees the program at SOL, said she sees a big difference in the participants from the first day of class to the garden installation.

“When they come in, they’re not sure how they’re going to integrate in the program. They’re not even sure what they’re doing,” she said. “Then they start to realize that it’s a lot about gardening themselves, tending themselves as well as the garden. Then they really start to flower, actually.”

Ben Ahyou said he has found numerous benefits to being involved in the program, not the least of which is the chance to get his hands dirty for a good cause.

“The opportunity to come back and play with the dirt as I did when I was a child – I couldn’t pass that up,” he said. “And then on top of that, I heard that things that also were taught had to do with personal transformation, and that’s something I’m into.”

The IGP curriculum consists of four semesters, beginning with environmental education and permaculture. Then, the “inside gardening” work begins, where students learn the tools to build emotional intelligence and respond rather than react. Finally, the program focuses on re-entry and the skills needed to be an effective leader both inside and outside prison.

“We use the garden as a really large metaphor,” said Amanda D’Elia, a graduate student in UC Davis’ Soils and Biogeochemistry Department. She is one of several volunteers who helped install the garden and who helps in the classroom. The volunteers, she said, get just as much out of the program as the inmates.

“We work on planting seeds and helping nourish the row – in a way, it’s like, ‘What do you need in your life to make yourself a better person?’” she said. “That’s helpful for anybody, obviously.”

Several men involved in IGP who paroled from SQSP have gone on to get jobs in landscaping and gardening, including a group who work with an IGP partner, Planting Justice, earning living-wage jobs while planting food gardens for people all over the Bay Area. The profit from planting those gardens goes toward planting community gardens in low-income neighborhoods – another example of creating a “permaculture.”

“That’s what the process is all about,” Jones said. “It is to bring things into your environment and your community that would not have existed before this program.”