Visitors, volunteers marvel at SQ Chapel Garden’s therapeutic ‘gateway’
San Quentin’s program volunteers, newly arrived prisoners and the many visitors that enter the Q have heard about San Quentin’s notorious history. But what have they seen?
Outsiders may be surprised to know that more than 1,000 volunteers come to San Quentin to facilitate self-help groups, tutor students, and teach college courses in the only accredited on-sight liberal arts prison college program in California.
With the prison’s dark history in mind, outsiders trek from the parking lot to the massive concrete entrance. Within they find the unexpected.
For many first-time visitors, the sight of a towering New Zealand Pine planted around 1883, surrounded by the manicured landscape, begs the question: what other calming elements are hidden within?
“The conflict between darkness and beauty was what I thought as I passed through the gates of the prison,” said Jason from the San Francisco Public Defender’s Alternate Defenders Program.
“Laid out before me was the beauty of a well-cared-for garden that I had not anticipated seeing,” said San Quentin resident and groundskeeper clerk Alex Bracamonte. “Nature knows exactly what to do when given the care it deserves.”
The beauty Jason is speaking of is San Quentin’s chapel garden. Along with its array of roses, geraniums, African lilies, hibiscus, and birds of paradise, the garden hosts a memorial honoring officers who died in the line of duty at San Quentin.
“It’s a wonderful testament to commemorate the tragic loss of life,” said SQ resident Ben Tobin. “The garden is well kept and has sort of a drawing effect to it that makes you want to inquire more about it.”
In the garden sits a bench with the Latin inscription ‘Requiescat in Pace’… Rest in Peace. A fallen officer’s family funds the memorial.
Tending to the landscape are San Quentin residents who find solace in its luxuriousness and their contribution to the serene garden chapel setting.
During the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak, some wondered about the garden’s maintenance absent the workers who were quarantined to their cells.
Former groundskeeper Carlos Meza, who paroled shortly after the prison reopened in 2021, told San Quentin News that there are seven types of soil in the garden.
“The soil has lots of organics and holds water well, said Meza. “As long as it receives water, rest assured that this garden … should not have any major maintenance problems if a long lockdown should ever occur.”
San Quentin groundskeepers work five days per week and receive approximately $20 a month for their efforts.
“It is not about the compensation I receive,” said Meza. “I find peace and enjoyment when I am just relaxing and watching newcomers’ faces fill with awe as they enter into what I refer to as the ‘gateway to a changed mind.’
“It’s like, once a person who has never been inside the walls of San Quentin spies the chapel garden, it gives them pause for thought, and they are taken aback.”
Alex Bracamonte added, “The guys do wonderful work on … the garden. New visitors to the prison often call us over and ask what we were doing to keep the garden looking so radiant.
“Our trade secret is that after the grass is cut, we add shredded paper that has no dye in it which adds to the minerals. That makes the dirt stronger and more potent. We also add oranges, apples, bread, and oatmeal to the soil and let nature take its course,” added Bracamonte.
“We were told a long time ago, do not plant anything while you are upset or angry because [of] the negative energy you are carrying.”