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Story, photos by Terry Thornton, Deputy Press Secretary
Office of Public and Employee Communications

On a clear sunny day in May, a group of California Health Care Facility (CHCF) inmates took a plot of barren land in front of the E Facility Chapel and transformed it into a garden.

The effort was part of the Insight Garden Program (IGP), a rehabilitative program that aims to break the cycle of incarceration through gardening and landscaping.

IGP, a recipient of CDCR’s Innovative Grant Program, not only impacts the lives of inmates and prison culture, but also provides vocational gardening and landscaping skills that can help people leaving prison find jobs.

The program integrates a neuroscience-based curriculum in the classroom with hands-on gardening experience and vocational skills development. IGP participants develop emotional intelligence, leadership skills and practical work skills focused on responsibility, accountability and teamwork.

“I fully support programs that provide inmates the tools to improve themselves,” said CHCF Warden Mike Martel. “And in this case, the inmates are not only helping themselves. They are creating a better environment for others to enjoy.”

And the program works. A 2011 study of IGP graduates released from prison found that fewer than 10 percent returned to prison.

“IGP participants not only transform their lives but are also prepared for reentry,” said IGP Executive Director Beth Waitkus. “Providing a reentry bridge from the inside out is critical to their success. The majority of IGP graduates who return to our communities get living-wage jobs, become community leaders and environmental stewards. Their success ends cycles of incarceration and creates safer communities.”

The garden at E Facility symbolizes a journey of transformation for CHCF and the offenders housed there.

CHCF, opened in July 2013, is a sprawling complex of 54 housing units in the main facility; E Facility has nine housing units. Nearly 2,400 inmates live at CHCF and the facility employs approximately 4,200 people that include state employees and contract staff. CHCF was constructed to provide medical care to the state’s sickest inmates and inpatient mental health care.

E Facility opened in 2014 and was the site of the former Karl Holton and DeWitt Nelson Youth Correctional Facilities. Practically every building was razed – except for the chapel. It was fully restored and is used for inmates of all faiths as well as a place for them to receive rehabilitative programming.

So it seems fitting the bleak piece of land in front of the chapel was chosen as the site of the new garden and meditative space that will provide a peaceful environment, provide color and life, and enhance inmates’ journeys of growth and transformation.  All the plants are drought-tolerant and native.

IGP was founded in 2002 at San Quentin State Prison and since 2014 has expanded to California State Prison-Solano, California Medical Facility and California State Prison-Los Angeles County. The program is now in place at CHCF and will expand to Avenal State Prison, Central California Women’s Facility and Folsom Women’s Facility later this year.

For more information about the program, visit http://insightgardenprogram.org/