At Maximum Security Prison, Gardening Gives Inmates A Chance To Grow

Nov 25, 2015

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, and like most of us, the men at the maximum-security prison in Cranston will sit down to a Thanksgiving meal. Their turkey and stuffing will be seasoned with herbs harvested from their prison garden. 

About 20 men at the prison are part of a garden therapy program. Rhode Island Public Radio’s Ambar Espinoza visited the prison garden as the inmates closed it down for the winter.

Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

In a gated rectangle the size of a large suburban yard, grass grows alongside strawberries and a few perennial herbs. About twenty men tend to this garden against the backdrop of a tall stonewall topped with barbed wire.

The men pull weeds and crush eggshells to enrich the soil. They soak the egg cartons in water to make compost.

“I honestly thought it was just like dirt,” said Marvin, one of the inmates in the prison garden program, known as Garden Time. “I thought, ‘Dirt is nasty. It’s dirty.’ But once I got to read and understand compost, it actually breaks [down] all the bad bacteria and makes good nutrients.”

Prison officials asked us not to use any last names for this story out of respect for the families affected by their crimes. Marvin said his time in the garden has taught him a lot about soil.

“With gardening, it comes from the ground up,” he said, “so if you got good soil, which comes from the compost, then you get a good garden.”

Marvin is one of a few men here with a chance to get out on parole. And if he does, he hopes to one day have a garden of his own.

But for most of these inmates, there is no leaving prison. They are serving life sentences for murder without the possibility of parole. 

Inmates describe the prison garden as an escape from prison life for a couple of hours a week.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“Believe it or not, even though you’re in a fenced in area, when you come in here it’s almost like not being in here for the hour, hour and a half that you’re in here,” said Joe. “You kind of forget where you’re at.”

Joe said gardening twice a week is a nice break from prison life. He briefly lost his garden privileges earlier this year for getting into a fight.

“A guy hit me and I hit him back and I lost my spot,” he explains. “I thought I was just defending myself but when I hit him back, I got thrown out of the garden. I actually had to write to the deputy warden, who’s been really good about [supporting] this [program].”

Joe was allowed back into the program as long as he stays out of trouble. 

“And that was probably the worst part of the whole thing, thinking that I lost this spot because I hadn’t been in trouble for about 16 years.”

Sixteen years - that's at least how long Joe's been behind bars. Some of these men are just beginning their sentences.

The corrections department has gotten complaints about the program from some people who feel inmates convicted of murder shouldn’t have the privilege of gardening. But Joe's peer Al says it gives them something to care about in prison. 

“You know, people look to the reasons why and what brought us into this place, right? But we’re still human beings,” said Al. 

In the garden, the men care for the egg cases of praying mantises, which are good garden insects. The inmates also enjoy seeing a resident hawk that keeps the rodent population in check.

Many of them describe learning to like new foods.

“Never knew anything about arugula,” said Tony. “Now I love arugula. I could eat it like chips.”

“Now I eat vegetables whereas before I didn’t,” added Gulil.

A few others grew up watching grandparents tend to their gardens and enjoyed spending time outdoors. Ken appreciates seeing blue skies and feeling the sun on his skin. He longs to be in nature.

“You know, I hurt. My soul hurts. I would love to be in the woods or back to basics with nature,” said Ken. “This program has allowed for me to get that closeness again back to nature by coming out here, putting my hands back in the soil and planting such vegetables as tomatoes and beans.”

As he holds a few plump, late-season raspberries in the palm of his hand, Ken says the program has taught him about nutrition and teamwork. He walks over to the garden shed he helped refurbish.

The men who also work in carpentry program have created wooden trinkets that live in this garden shed: Max, the mascot rooster, a library cabinet in the shape of a barn, and a wooden sign with the garden's name: Hope Garden.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

“This is our mascot Max, the rooster,” Ken said as he pointed to a wooden carving. “I made a little barn here for our library books, so anything that we have questions about it, we may help ourselves to the books and learn.”

The men used to get teased by other inmates who saw gardening as women’s work. But Joe said now many of those inmates are vying for a spot in the garden and often come up to the garden fence to ask what’s growing, “especially when the strawberries are coming out. Everybody wants those. Strawberries and garlic are like the mainstays. Everybody in the place wants them.”

One year, Al said the men had a surplus of strawberries and they donated several pounds to a homeless shelter.

“And so when we were able to give food to some of the homeless, it gives you empathy for another human being. It shows you the thing that binds us all as human beings. This is a need that needs to be fulfilled.”

The men can’t change what they did that got them in prison. But the garden therapy program has given them something to be proud about. And when they sit down for a Thanksgiving meal tomorrow with their fellow inmates, they will taste the turkey and stuffing seasoned with sage and rosemary they grew and harvested.