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Vintage postcard showing prison tower and concertina wire
Illustration by Katrina Rodriguez; text effects by Teresa Tauchi

"Postcard From the Yard" is a series from Prison Journalism Project that presents brief but rich descriptions of a single scene intended to invite the outside reader into the space or moment occupied by the writer. Collectively, these stories build an immersive portrait of prisons across America.

When I first got to prison, there was an older guy who used to plant flowers. He grew lavender and sunflowers and one other I can’t remember. 

Those of us incarcerated here at South Central Correctional Center in Missouri like looking at the flowers. The garden is a place where we seek solace and comfort. The colorful flowers remind us of what we experienced when we were free. Sometimes in the garden we talk about our family members who used to grow flowers, like my mom. The garden takes the darkness away from these prison walls. Here, we can feel some peace and even freedom.

But the older guy got locked up in the hole three years ago, and I didn’t see him again. So I started tending the garden on my own. That fall, I saved the seeds so I could plant them again in spring. Now I do this every year. 

I used to work in a garden on a farm when I was a teenager. I grew all kinds of vegetables. I’m not allowed to grow vegetables here. I guess it’s because we just have a small space for the yard and garden. 

I like growing flowers too, for meditative reasons. Flowers are like us in a way. We all need water, air, sunshine and nutrients to feed our cells. I used to take things for granted in life. Now I see things like the beauty of flowers as a gift from God. 

Chinese meditation gardens fascinate me. I hear they have small flower gardens by every house. I’d like to have a garden like that, with a small pond filled with colorful carp and lilies. There would be fountains of frogs or fish spraying water, and maybe a creek running over stones. Wind chimes would be nice too, hanging from small trees over the pond’s edge. Soft colored lights would shine on the pond at night.

But here, I have to be creative with my garden. I find tiny stones of varying shapes and colors that I put around the flowers to make it look nice. I have to come up with my own tools, too, like the coffee jar lid I use for digging. The weeds I pick by hand. It’s manageable this way.

The flowers draw the attention of wildlife too, which is another source of joy. Sparrows fly around the flowers, and I see the same goldfinch once a year. I like seeing the butterflies and bees going from flower to flower. 

Praying mantises eat insects in the garden and lay their egg sacks on the flower stems. I used to be scared of praying mantises until a friend showed me how gentle they are. I read that people in China keep them in their gardens as pets, to eat the pests. 

I kept one as a pet one year too. I would hold it and feed it insects. It had big green eyes and a mouth full of tiny razor teeth. Its tongue looked just like ours. After a praying mantis lays its egg sack, it eventually dies. My pet mantis started getting weak and stopped eating when I fed her. When she died, I buried her in the garden and brought her egg sack inside. When spring came, the tiny babies burst from the sack by the hundreds. I put them back in the garden so they could survive outside in their world.

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.

Jeff Murphy is a poet incarcerated in Missouri.