Merced County Times Newspaper
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Sierra Club showcases restorative prison gardening program

An ‘Insight Garden’ at the Central California Women’s Prison in Chowchilla.  
An ‘Insight Garden’ at the Central California Women’s Prison in Chowchilla.

Community members who attended the virtual Sierra Club meeting on March 18 were treated to a presentation by Katerina Friesen, program manager with Insight Garden Program (IGP).

Insight Garden Program is in 11 State prisons in California and two facilities outside California.  Friesen works at Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla, and at Avenal State Prison.

Rod Webster, local Sierra Club president, explained, “This innovative program offers hands-on gardening for incarcerated people within the walls of our local prisons.  An accompanying curriculum gives this the potential to help participants to reconnect to self, to community, and to the natural world.”

Those who attended the Sierra Club virtual meeting were delighted to see photos of the garden at the Chowchilla women’s facility with its native plants, birds, bees, and other pollinators.  The gardens light up the prison yards and allow the female participants in Chowchilla and the male participants in Avenal to make something beautiful through positive interactions.

Friesen, who has a background in Theology, Cross-cultural Studies and Peace Making, told the Times, “We enter prisons to show people they are not forgotten, instead of just focusing on their crimes.  People in prison could have been impacted by addiction issues, poverty, racism, childhood trauma, domestic violence or other things that influenced their crimes.

“The gardens they build inside prisons are amazing.  We are a therapeutic vocational gardening and re-entry program inside correctional facilities through which people can connect with themselves, their communities and their natural world.

“It’s a re-connection through hands-on gardening as well as “inner gardening” which involves inner work.  The inner work involves participating in group circles within the program, and emotional processing with the end goal of transforming people’s lives.  In this way, the program is part of ending the ongoing cycles of incarceration.

“It’s part of a bigger movement of programs working inside prisons, as well as on the outside, to address the roots of incarceration.

“We have a re-entry team, and we also accompany people outside prison when they’re released to create a bridge for them back to the community.”

Arnold Trevino, who is the re-entry coordinator/co-facilitator for Insight Garden Program at Avenal State Prison, told the Times, “I was formerly incarcerated as a lifer.  I served 25 years in prison.  What I give to the program is a person who was incarcerated going back into the prison and giving hope to the people who feel they can’t move forward because of their background.  My mere presence shows them that they can.  I went from a lifer to an advocate. I was in their shoes, and I want them to be in my shoes because they can.  They just need something to motivate them.

“We prepare for re-entry as part of our curriculum as well and do some leadership development together.

“We plug the parolees into jobs on the outside.

“I facilitate a Re-entry circles group on Zoom on Thursday nights, and we all engage in discussions and reconnect and some have created their own businesses.  We try to assist them in getting jobs as former IGP participants.  They have come up with their own gardening programs, and there is a tight network of individuals who try to help each other out.

“Some have been placed in Planting Justice, a non-profit in the Bay Area which has its own nursery and does school and community gardens for the community  and hires formerly incarcerated people.  For other jobs, we might connect them with transitional homes in the community that have resources for employment.

“There are some amazing leaders in prison.  One woman who was recently released spoke at a conference through Yale.”


How does IGP operate?

Friesen told the Times, “There is a garden in each prison where we work.

“We go in once a week when the prisons are open, and groups of 25 people come to class each week for two hours to do hands-on planting, weeding and tending to the garden for 30 minutes and then do group work in the classroom setting.

“We sit in a circle and share about different themes during a 48-week curriculum consisting of four 12-week cycles.  We talk about how they can they do their own garden design to apply in their home communities.  We try to encourage wonder in the world beyond prison, which can become such an isolating place.  We learn about ecosystems and let them see they are part of bigger ecosystems beyond the prison.

“The inner garden work involves mindfulness, meditation and ways of moving out of fight or flight response and we get into Neuroscience and talk about how we recognize triggers so our brains and bodies are not as triggered toward conflict in really high stress situations, such as prison.

“We work on letting things go and being able to be aware of oneself, having a sense of insight into oneself.”


How did IGP start?

The Insight Garden Program started about 19 years ago to offer people who have been incarcerated a second chance and an opportunity for growth.  Instead of a punitive approach, IGP takes a restorative approach.

The founder, Beth Waitkus, was working in a meditation program in San Quentin State Prision.  Waitkus saw an area of land that was bare, and she was challenged, as a gardener herself, to do something with it.

The incarcerated folks in San Quentin participated with her in shaping the curriculum and starting a garden on the land.

In 2017, the program expanded to some new facilities, including Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchilla and Avenal State Prison.  The non-profit was able to get State grants through California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to expand.

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