“I haven’t touched a flower in 29 years.”
All eyes were on my friend Omar as he spoke softly and slowly. He became emotional, and as the room went silent, tears clouded our sight. Most of us knew that Omar had been on Death Row for 17 of those years.
That day, our gardening instructors, Dave and Armando, surprised us by bringing in fresh flowers. The softness of those flower petals was quite a contrast to the steel and concrete of prison. As we dissected the flowers, pollen stuck to my fingers, and colorful petals decorated my desk. It was a beautiful mess. Following Omar’s comment, other men opened up and shared their own experiences. Our gardening group grew more trusting after that encounter.
Earlier on, I had been one of the first men to sign up for the “Insight Gardening Program” offered at California State Prison — Los Angeles County. Since I hadn’t grown any vegetables, flowers, or herbs since the 1970s, my excitement toward this program was a blend of nostalgia and anticipation.
Over the span of nine months, our class studied permaculture, which treats plants as part of a whole system that requires planning and observation. In the classroom, we learned about different types of insects, soil, watering techniques and organic fertilizers. We also brainstormed design ideas for a 1,500-square-foot area which would soon be transformed into our garden.
Indeed, one day, the heavily fortified, razor-wire fence gate opened. Trucks dumped loads of organic soil, lumber, and gardening tools onto the prison yard. Twenty excited men, including me, formed into work groups. For us, this day had seemed to take forever to arrive.
Our class was divided into three groups: “The Ranchos,” “Permaunit,” and my group, “The Green Thumbs.” Many of us had not performed physical labor in a while. We each chose our work assignments from a prepared list compiled by Dave. I picked digging trenches and eventually joined the wheelbarrow brigade.
As the sun struggled to break through the clouds, we worked together as a team, mixing the existing dry and sandy earth with the fluffy, nutrient-filled soil brought in by the trucks. When one of us got tired, another man took over, no questions asked. There was not a lot of talk as we worked.
Eventually, it was time to implement our design plans. Volunteers from a global landscaping company met with us on numerous occasions. Many of the visitors were women who had never seen the inside of a prison. They were apprehensive. All they knew about prison was what they had seen in the media.
Expecting a hostile and uncomfortable setting, some of the volunteers were understandably nervous at first. However, by the end of our project, they let their guard down. The volunteers described us as pleasant and warm, and even thanked us before departing. It was an emotional farewell for everyone.
As our project progressed, we agreed on a custom-designed, two-tiered, and curved design for our garden. Within a few days, the barren and bleak plot of land came to life. As men walked around the yard, they stopped to watch us. For them it might have been just prison, but to us, it was a slice of heaven. I was not the only one whose body was sore afterwards, but the sweat and toil was well worth it.
The planting of eight or so tiny potted plants commenced a few days later. Dave and Armando laid each plant on top of the fertile earth in symmetrical positions; after that, we dug the holes and carefully placed each plant in. Our garden would come to include rosemary, oregano, sage, coriander, marjoram, thyme, lavender and other aromatic herbs. Colorful flowers such as poppies, columbine, snapdragons, alyssum, foxgloves soon followed. Each plant was marked and identified by a plastic stick.
What a pleasure it was to feel the stalks and leaves and to see the extensive root systems as we firmly patted the soil around them. Watering was next: not too much, just the right amount to get the ground damp. Unfortunately, some of the herbs and flowers waiting in their small containers were eaten by a local family of hungry rabbits, right down to their roots.
Our allotted time soon came to an end per prison rules. Since our class only met on Fridays, part of the class was assigned to water the garden daily. Every day, I walk past our garden, remembering how neglected the area used to look and how tranquil and beautiful it looks now.
Dave and Armando’s time and effort made all this possible by successfully navigating through the prison bureaucracy, and we are so grateful to them. Some staff members have also been supportive. Other California State Prisons have been creating gardens as well. A woman named Beth started this whole idea, and she flies in from time to time to check out our progress. Soon, we will add vegetables. The plan is to donate the anticipated bountiful harvest to the Lancaster Food Bank.
I pray our little piece of heaven on Earth will last for many years to come.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.