A San Quentin garden program uses the power of planting and growing to help students apply what they learn to their rehabilitation.
The Insight Garden Project is a group that brings the healing power of the earth to the residents of the prison’s H-Unit, according to Isa Pena, IGP program manager. Pena said her interest in prisons dates back to visiting an incarcerated family member at the age of eight.
The garden includes a few food plants such as strawberries and salad ingredients, but mostly grows medicinal plants. Pena said participants learn ways in which to handle plants gently and to understand the plants’ need for care. IGP helps prison residents cultivate mindfulness by connecting with the earth, and it teaches about the medicinal benefits of herbs and roots, she explained.
The 25-member class takes place every Friday from 3-5 p.m. Pena starts each class by using guided meditation that explores the ways in which nature works and the way nature can apply to the students’ lives.
The San Quentin IGP was founded by Beth Waitkus in 2002. At reirement, she left it in the hands of Pena and outside volunteers.
Student Bruce Bowman said, “The group is beneficial on a few levels. It’s beneficial if you want to plant and get more intimate with the soil’s healing part, and good for healing the inner garden. It helps with my calmness or serenity. It helps me to have hope for the future.”
Resident Raymond Morris commented, “The group taught me a lot about the healing power of plants and when I’m in the soil, the meditation gives me a chance to clear my head.”
The intersectional trauma-informed curriculum utilizes practices of therapeutic horticulture, restorative justice and meditation mindfulness.
“When I think about it, it blows my mind. The garden itself is mind-blowing beautiful,” said volunteer Faryn Hart, a horticulture therapist. “We all want people to be able to access what they feel. We all deserve to be humanized.”
“Out of all the groups I attended, this is the best one for me,” said Ethan Crum, a garden project participant.
The program also assists students when they are released from San Quentin. The reentry process begins with a transition questionnaire that is mailed to the IGP office. The assistance also includes a warm meal, a backpack of essential supplies, a smartphone, a laptop computer for returning citizens enrolled in college and $100 to buy clothing. Weekly support circles are held on Zoom meetings with a licensed social worker, and they provide rapid response funding for participants who need extra financial support for food and rent.