Located about 50 miles northeast of San Francisco, Solano State Prison is home to 3,800 incarcerated men. Sandwiched between an oak-studded hillside to the west and a sea of suburban cul-de-sacs to the east, the medium-security facility stands out in its surroundings. From above, the basic structure of the 146-acre prison becomes clear: A long north-south oriented building forms the administrative spine and houses the cafeteria, kitchen, gymnasium, commissary, and meeting rooms. Four housing quads branch out from this spine, with a total of 24 self-contained units intentionally arranged to form a decentralized prison campus. In the center of each of these clusters are the “yards,” where inmates have access to shared open space during certain times of the day. While these spaces have primarily been used for exercise—each yard has a large gravel track, concrete pads for games, pull-up bars, and a few patches of turf—their role within the prison is expanding.
Beth Waitkus, director of the Insight Garden Program (IGP), founded in 2002, has introduced the value of rehabilitation and reconciliation in the justice system through environmental literacy, landscape design, and sustainability. The program got its roots at San Quentin, California’s oldest and most infamous prison, where over 1,000 inmates have explored (some for years) the relationship between “inner” and “outer” gardening. Today, the program boasts a 1,200-square-foot garden comprised of mature ornamental grasses and wildflowers as well as a number of raised beds full of vegetables and herbs. Most importantly, though, it boasts an incredibly low recidivism rate, with less than 10 percent of the program’s participants returning to prison or jail once released; this figure is especially impressive when compared with the national figure of 67 percent (according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics). Through IGP, the inmates learn hands-on, employable skills, giving them the ability, confidence, and desire to earn a living after completing their sentence.
Due to IGP’s success at San Quentin, its curriculum is currently expanding to other facilities, including Solano State Prison. About six months ago, Waitkus contacted me to see if I had an interest in helping to formalize the plans for a small garden installation in the northwest yard. She invited me to the prison to meet the men, hear about their ideas for the space, and engage in the curriculum. After a minor dress code debacle (metal zippers do not pass strict security measures!), I made it in. With no outdoor space in which to gather, we sat together in the empty cafeteria, where our chairs formed a tight circle, with a small potted fern in the center. For four hours, we took turns reading about amygdala training, visualizing garden design, and reviewing the principles of permaculture. I then received all of the prisoners’ sketches for the garden, a rich mix of ideas that needed to be combined into a single inclusive design.
Back at the Sausalito office, a small group of designers was recruited to help make this garden a reality. Over the past few months we’ve analyzed the inmates’ diagrams and drawings, toured a community garden for ideas, sketched over lunch, and compiled a preliminary budget for the project. I recently returned to the prison to present our design—a sensorial habitat garden featuring a variety of colorful and fragrant plants such as Asclepias fascicularis, Penstemon spectabilis, and Salvia spathacea. If all goes well, we will install the 2,150-square-foot garden in the fall. And while this small effort represents just three percent of the overall prison grounds, it is a much-needed patch of green among grey.