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A Look at the First Vegetable Garden Inside a California State Prison

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According to the California Department of Corrections & Rehabilitation, the recidivism rate in the state is more than 60% — that is, 60% of the people released from prison return within three years.

At San Quentin State Prison, however, that number is less than 10%. The recidivism rate at this prison (situated just outside San Francisco) is remarkably low, and much of that can be credited to a successful rehabilitation program run by the Insight Garden Program (IGP), which provides horticultural therapy, vocational gardening and life skills for prisoners.

In December 2003, IGP created California's first prison garden at San Quentin. The 1,200-square-foot native organic flower garden was planted in the prison yard of the medium security unit with the help of self-selected inmates, volunteer landscape and gardening experts, and prison staff. Exactly 10 years later, inmates came together again to build five raised beds to support the state's first vegetable garden behind prison walls. They helped break up asphalt on prison grounds, constructed a perimeter fence, filled the beds with over 10 yards of compost, mulched the earth and planted vegetables and herbs.

It's one thing to be able to buy or taste a fresh, ripe tomato, but to plant it yourself and watch it grow from seedling to fruit, well... you can see why an inmate named Charles is excited about the new project:

The vegetable garden was initiated by Planting Justice, an Oakland nonprofit that works with IGP to help lead prison classes on food justice work, permaculture design, and landscaping skills. Upon the inmates' release, Planting Justice provides job opportunities on their own landscaping teams, as well as paid training and continuing education in all aspects of edible landscaping, from greywater system installation to urban animal husbandry. At a starting wage of $17.50 an hour, the green jobs give newly released prisoners a new lease on life — and less of a reason to return to the cell.

While impressive, IGP and Planting Justice's garden program is not unique to the system. The largest penal colony in the world, Rikers Island in New York, established its own garden rehab in 1996 called GreenHouse, run by the Horticultural Society of New York and the NYC Department of Corrections. The 11,706-square-foot garden at Sandusky County Jail in Ohio was started in 2009 and produces more food than the prison can use; every year it donates hundreds of pounds of excess vegetables to food pantries and soup kitchens. And last year, Missouri's statewide Restorative Justice Garden Program donated a record 163 tons of fresh fruit and vegetables to local food pantries, shelters, churches, nursing homes, and schools (beating its former 2012 record of 117 tons).

As for San Quentin, Planting Justice says all the food grown in the new vegetable beds will be donated to local Bay Area charities serving low-income communities.

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