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Seeds of Change: A Prison Garden Program

When we lack the faith that these people can change, we're really expressing our lack of faith in our own humanity.

I knew something wasn't working. As a young counselor in the San Francisco County Jail, I repeatedly saw the same people return.

I had come to work at the jail in 1980, out of law school, enthusiastic about working for my former teacher, the new sheriff of San Francisco. I thought I would be making a difference in the lives of the prisoners–helping them address the issues that got them into jail so they would never have to return.

It was not so simple.

When prisoners are released from jail, they're dropped off downtown in the clothes they came in. They have no money, no job experience, no training, and no place to live. And they are expected to be reformed.

Not surprisingly, they continued to return.

I thought that if I talked to them about these issues, helped them to feel better about themselves, gave them a suit to wear at the job interview, they would then be able to make a successful transition back into society.

In 1983, when I was hospitalized with a life threatening kidney illness, a friend gave me John Steinbeck's book The Grapes of Wrath. I read it avidly. The families in the novel found hope in their connectedness to their land. I thought about my job at the jail. I didn't have much to offer the prisoners, but what I could give them was the opportunity to go outside and work on the jail grounds, which until the 1970s had been a working farm. Maybe they, too, could find a way to connect to the land.

The prisoners and I began to clear the weeds and debris, and the Horticulture Program at the San Francisco County Jail was born. Every day, the prisoners and I went out to work on the farm on the jail's grounds, growing vegetables that we donated to soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

Today, for most prisoners, the work begins in a greenhouse with small plants that need constant nurturing. Each person cares for particular plants and learns, by watching them grow, the true nature of this life: growth, renewal, and perseverance. Somewhere during the time spent quietly working the earth, something happens and something changes. Witnessing the cycle of growth and renewal allows the prisoners to see their own potential for growth and change. People often ask me what I did to inspire people to work. I tell them that it wasn't me, it was the plants.

Out to the streets

The program seemed to be working. One day the sheriff came out to see us in action. One of my students told him the program had changed his life. So much, in fact, that even though he was to be released in the coming weeks, he did not want to leave. He asked the sheriff if he could stay and work on the farm and take care of his plants. He had nothing on the outside.

It was then that I recognized the need for a post-release program where participants could continue the work they began in the jail, continue to help poor communities, and earn a living wage. So in 1992, we began a post-release program called the Garden Project. The Garden Project gives former prisoners the job, the support, and the life skills they need to remain out of jail. Meanwhile, their work continues to benefit poor communities.

Today the participants in the Garden Project work to grow food that feeds hundreds of low- income seniors and families each week. We have a thriving community garden, and we've planted more than 7,000 street trees in San Francisco. The work of the Garden Project proves that change can happen: Garden Project participants are 25 percent less likely to return to jail than those who didn't participate in the project.

The current trend in criminal justice calls for us to think big–to think in the same way we've thought since the penal system was established. It teaches us we need more prisons. It teaches us we need harsher sentencing. Most of all, it teaches us to give up on our fellow human beings, because that is what the system is really about.

When we lack the faith that these people can change, we're really expressing our lack of faith in our own humanity. With one in three young African-American men in prison, jail, or on parole, even the youngest get the message: they are more likely to end up in the city jail than the city college. National trends indicate that this pattern will continue. It is our national shame.

It's past time for another message. My friend, the poet Wendell Berry, wrote, “Out of a history so much ruled by the motto Think Big, we have come to a place and a need that requires us to think small.”

At the Garden Project, we are thinking small. We didn't have a choice–we didn't have any fancy tools or equipment. We started with what we did have: land, work to be done, and people eager to do it. We didn't know when we started our garden what impact we would have. We only knew we had to begin somewhere.

But beginning somewhere is enough. The economist E. F. Schumacher once wrote, “Perhaps we cannot raise the winds. But each of us can put up the sails so that when the wind comes we can catch it.”

We have put up our sail. And we're not just growing plants–we're growing people.


Catherine Sneed wrote this article for Is It Time to Close the Prisons?, the Fall 2000 issue of YES! Magazine. Catherine Sneed is founder of the Garden Project.

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