Dragonflies, bumblebees and Monarch butterflies are daily visitors to the H-Unit garden planted and maintained by the Insight Garden Program (IGP). The program group meets every Friday afternoon in H-Unit, a dormitory yard at San Quentin.
For the past 15 years, the 1,200-square-foot organic flower garden has served as a thriving plot of vibrant drought-resistant plants, flowering herbs and ornamental grasses, including wild geranium, yarrow and Echinacea.
Beth Waitkus started the program in San Quentin’s H-unit in 2002. Volunteers run IGP and some of its programs are also funded by California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Innovative Grants Program. It now operates in eight California prisons (San Quentin, Solano, Avenal, L.A. County and both women’s facilities and both medical prisons) as well as two Indiana prisons, plus a re-entry project in New York City.
IGP selected Chihico Wimbush, the Emmy award-nominated documentary film director of Dogtown Redemption, to create an eight-minute film about the program. This film will introduce IGP to the world.
In October, the H-Unit class pre-screened the film that celebrates the 15th anniversary of IGP’s launch.
After an opening shot of the Lower Yard blacktop, the film moves to scenes of H-Unit accompanied by a voice-over by inmates in the current gardening group:
“It makes me feel relaxed and peaceful.”
“I want to teach my son how to plant.”
“It takes generosity to learn to slow down and center myself on the garden.”
“It taught me to be who I’m meant to be.”
It’s clear that IGP is an oasis and a haven for the men in blue amid razor-wire and watch towers.
After viewing the film, inmate J. Elron Mings said, “I hope the world gets to see that we are not just our crimes.”
IGP’s mission is to help the incarcerated reconnect to themselves, their communities and nature by nurturing the soil, seedlings and their own inner lives. The transformation through connection to nature includes learning marketable green sector skills.
Anthony Forrest, a formerly incarcerated IGP participant, said, “It was like a new family because they care for you, and they help you in so many ways. Going to IGP helped me achieve the things I wanted and helped me find structure in my life…through connections with IGP, I was fortunate enough to have a job waiting for me,”
In 2015 IGP added a series of raised planting beds as a vegetable plot in partnership with the Oakland-based nonprofit Planting Justice. The plot grows onions, garlic, potatoes and leafy greens with flowering plants intermixed to attract bees.
As institutional rules require that all prisoners have equal access to resources within an institution, inmates cannot partake in the produce. IGP donates all its produce to the S.F.-Marin Food Bank.
In IGP’s eight-year partnership with Planting Justice, the nonprofit has offered more than 30 jobs to former inmates, according to Planting Justice’s Haleh Zandi.
For information on the Insight Garden Program go to insightgardenprogram.org, plantingjustice.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org