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A pepper plant grows out of the top of a man's head while a butterfly hovers nearby.
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi

It was 6 a.m. when I awoke to keys jingling in the door to our six-man cubicle. 

“Everybody alive in here?” the guard asked. 

The guard looked around the room perfoming what is commonly known in prison as a security or welfare check. While scanning the room, he noticed a pepper plant in the far corner of the restroom area beneath the window, where it received light daily. 

“Hey, you guys grew that?” he asked in amazement. Thus began a conversation about all the ways to use red chili peppers in our favorite dishes. 

Whenever someone spots our pepper plant, they seem taken aback that we conceived of growing and nurturing a plant. But many people, both inside and outside of prison walls, would be surprised to learn just how common this practice is in California prisons.

There are few things in prison that remind you of home. One of the reasons inmates grow plants — even those that do not produce food — is because plants provide a sense of normalcy, a feeling of home. 

“Anyone who knows anything about plants knows that they produce oxygen,” said Oscar Castellanos, an inmate who shares a cubicle with me. “They make me feel normal, and they remind me of out there.” 

By “out there” Castellanos means freedom, which is another reason we grow plants. Plants give us a feeling of being free.

Prisons are artificial environments made up of concrete and steel, and incarceration is not at all representative of real life. There are no cars, no children and definitely no trees. If there is grass at all, it is a luxury. The absence of anything representing normal life compounds the loss of freedom we feel everyday. Growing plants mitigates this painful feeling and provides a nurturing environment where inmates can find meaning and purpose. 

That leads me to the third reason why we grow plants: It gives us something to look forward to. Having something constructive to do — like working with our hands — is vitally important for our mental and emotional health. 

Read how Sakina Shakur’s work in her prison garden awakened her femininity in Prison Helped Me Discover a Labor of Love.

Growing plants allows us to show off our skills — producing a beautiful and healthy plant is no small undertaking. One would definitely have to have requisite knowledge to do so successfully. That’s why so many people who grow plants inside watch nature and cooking shows on television.

One cellmate of mine began growing red peppers because he wanted to have fresh ones for cooking. All the shows he watched were about food and nature, which helped him learn how to plant, pot and grow his pepper plant. Two years after he first began his project, he now produces ripe red peppers, which he can pick whenever he needs one. 

Prison is a place where inmates face the consequences of their actions, so it’s not very joyful. But, as our gardening shows, it can also be a place of healing, hope and transformation — a place where people find meaning in little things once taken for granted.

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.

Sean "Sharif" Neal is a writer incarcerated in California.