Insight Garden Program: San Quentin Prison

I assume that with the new 'green' push, more and more prisons will be employing these types of programs. There's a similar program for the women inmates at Rikers Island.

(San Francisco Mag) Prisoners at San Quentin have long provided the Bay Area with cheap, anonymous labor. We rest on inmate-crafted mattresses and chairs, and we store our office supplies in prison-made cabinets. In the coming months, we could be eating their tomatoes.

Since 2002, the Insight Garden Program has been teaching prisoners the basics of pruning and irrigation in a small flower-and-herb garden. About 40 men are now enrolled in the course, and several hopefuls show up each week to clamor for a space. The program provides hands-on vocational training that prisoners can later use to find jobs, as well as quasi-spiritual guidance that helps them connect with something other than cement. This spring, class members will be graduating to a vegetable garden—the first to be planted in any California prison.

Despite San Quentin’s Bay Area location and the notorious reputation of the penitentiary’s food, these incarcerated gardeners won’t be able to enjoy the vegetables of their labor. Prison officials worry that inmates might try to sell the produce on the black market or bury weapons in the soil. And getting the vegetables approved for onsite consumption presents too many bureaucratic obstacles, according to the garden’s program director, Beth Waitkus. So, for the time being, inmates will likely donate their first harvests to a food bank or—in a move that would at least benefit prison alumni—a prisoner reentry program like Delancey Street.

“I think it will break the stereotype of prison,” says inmate Jeff Rutland. “Everybody in the Bay Area knows San Quentin by what they see on TV. But we’re not all Scott Peterson. If you put a plate of veggies in front of someone and tell them it came from San Quentin, it will make them think twice.”

The program also provides a refuge for the roughly 1,000 inmates who live in the medium-security wing. The wing’s massive concrete yard is divided into sections for blacks, whites, and Latinos—but in the small patch of soil in the corner, where tall grasses, wild geraniums, and lavender grow, typical racial rules do not apply. Black guys do push-ups next to Mexican guys chatting in Spanish while a twentysomething white guy with a goatee strums his guitar.

“It’s like a neutral ground here,” says prisoner Larry Levi. “You can come here, whatever race you are, and be at peace.”