Beth Waitkus (center left) and participants working at Insight Garden Program’s largest garden, located in the Central Valley. Photo: CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

The tragic events of 9/11 left Beth Waitkus looking to restore her faith in humanity. Not finding a greater purpose while working in the corporate world, Waitkus sought out career counseling and the practice of Buddhism. Her soul-searching journey culminated when a friend offered to take her on a tour of San Quentin State Prison in 2001.

This initial tour inspired Waitkus to get involved at the prison on a deeper level. She underwent volunteer training at San Quentin and was soon asked to grow a garden inside. She realized that this project would perfectly combine her love of nature and her interest in social and environmental justice, and it would give her a meaningful purpose that she was searching for. Ultimately for Waitkus, bringing nature into the lives of incarcerated individuals became more than just an afternoon activity — it became an opportunity to change the prison system as a whole. Thus, Insight Garden Program (IGP) was born.

Flower Garden at San Quentin State Prison. Photo: CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

“I started the program 15 years ago at San Quentin with just the goal of starting a garden in a prison to see what would happen,” said Waitkus about the Berkeley-based organization where she serves as its executive director.

Initially, Waitkus started IGP with a simple goal to reconnect people who are incarcerated with nature. Today, as it spans 12 institutions including prisons, juvenile facilities, healthcare facilities and reentry programs in California, Indiana and New York, it has a larger aim to end the cycles of mass incarceration through healing and rehabilitation opportunities.

The curriculum consists of classes for 25 to 30 participants at a time, focused on environmental education, sustainable landscaping and gardening training, personal growth, and reentry and career preparation. All facets of the curriculum work to reconnect individuals to nature, but also develop important personal skills crucial for life upon release. As Waitkus put it, “People are learning the skills they need to save their own lives.”

Women working on a raised bed at Insight Garden Program’s largest garden to date in the Central Valley. Photo: CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

In the first part of the program, individuals learn about ecological principles, soil and food systems, consumer systems and climate change. Then, they get hands-on experience through the cultivation and maintenance of plants and gardens on prison grounds. They learn first-hand about permaculture and water conservation, but more importantly, it gives them marketable gardening skills.

Through the program, participants grow a variety of plants, including edible crops. Most of the produce grown is ultimately donated to local community organizations, as participants in the program are only able to eat what they grow once per semester. The reason for this rule, Waitkus explained, is that it would not be equitable for IGP participants to enjoy crops from the garden while everyone else can only eat what they were given from the prison’s kitchen. On the bright side, she said, “conversations are starting at San Quentin, like what if [the food] went to the kitchen.”

Waitkus in the garden with a group of IGP participants. Photo: CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

In addition to learning how to grow plants, participants learn to grow as individuals, what the program calls “inner gardening.” They participate in practices like meditation and eco-therapy to better understand their inner selves and achieve personal transformation. This part of the program focuses on communication, leadership and community-building skills.

The last part of the program focuses on reentry training. IGP readies participants for their lives outside of prison walls and educates them on continued engagement with environmental stewardship and green collar career choices.

Waitkus has seen the long-term effects that IGP can have on participants’ lives. It “stays with people,” she said. “A lot of men and women talk about wanting to create gardens with their families when they leave and a number of people who have left our program have become environmental stewards.”

One formerly incarcerated individual was so inspired by the program that he started Healthy Hearts Institutes, a Pittsburg-based nonprofit that provides nutritional education and starts community gardens in food deserts. He started by growing a community garden in the projects where he grew up.

“We need to send people out to be contributing members of society,” said Waitkus. “I hear lots of people who just say ‘Lock ‘em up and throw away the key. Why do you care?’ To that I say, ‘Look, most people who are in prison are leaving. Would you rather them come out and commit a crime or not commit a crime?’ That usually stops them in their tracks.”

Because of overpopulation and the high costs of operating prisons (approximately $80 billion per year, to run federal and state prisons and local jails), many incarcerated individuals are eventually released. But, recidivism rates are very high; about 60% of formerly incarcerated individuals in California will ultimately return to prison. Meanwhile, those who participate in IGP are much less likely to return. The program boasts a 10% recidivism rate.

IGP participants harvesting onions. Photo: CA Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Waitkus credits IGP’s success to “a system shift away from punishment,” instead focusing on rehabilitation. Rather than continuously penalizing incarcerated individuals, IGP works to build their skills and their sense of self for a successful transition in their new lives outside of prison. “We need to build on the wisdom and the skills that they already have,” said Waitkus.

“It’s a ripple effect. We aren’t just doing prison work, we are changing the whole system.”

Hailey Johnson is a senior at UC Berkeley studying English. She studied film at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts before transferring to Cal. She now works as a blogger for The Daily Californian...