Blossoming Behind Bars: Relationships Between Eco-Education, Ethics and Personal Empowerment in Gardening and Mindfulness Programming Within San Quentin Prison

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Lisa Benham1, Rachel O'Malley1, Anne Marie Todd2, Deanna Fassett2 and Beth Waitkus3, (1)San Jose State University, Environmental Studies, San Jose, CA, United States, (2)San Jose State University, Communication Studies, San Jose, CA, United States, (3)Insight Garden Program, Berkeley, CA, United States
Parallels exist between American environmental practice and those of our criminal justice system. Common among these are “throw-away” approaches, often yielding more complex problems then those attempted to solve. Personal change can be expressed via deepening sense of context and purpose, extending beyond concerns for self. Incarceration often exacerbates a thirst for new meaning-making, highly relevant to both criminal and ecological rehabilitation.

Primary field data was gathered from incarcerated men, with a focus on the Insight Garden Program in San Quentin State Prison. A mixed method was used, with open-ended qualitative interviews and three established multiple-choice survey instruments: an environmental literacy quiz; a Locus of Control test (a psychological survey measuring one’s sense of self-agency); and the “Six Americas” survey instrument, which stratifies responses of climate change opinion.

Two control groups in the same unit were included in the study: inmates taking other programs but not gardening, and inmates in no programming at all. This research explores patterns in the ways people come to terms with personal moral obligation, as well as how restorative ecological engagement may be transformational for humans in personal crisis.

Participants described prison programming in general as contributing profoundly to personal transformation. Beyond that, programming with a strong ecological focus offered vocational, intellectual, emotional and even spiritual change, which in turn has been shown to aid in reducing recidivism rates.

Given a sample size of 58 participants total, the 174 surveys conducted were not primarily intended to achieve statistical significances but augment the overall perspective, for individuals, or for groups. Some correlations of significance were observed, however, between control groups, survey data, and with general US population data.

Most intriguing, analysis of the qualitative interview data yielded patterns of progressive change in personal and/or ecological relationship.

These survey results and compelling dialogues illustrate the degree to which prison programming experiences have profoundly expanded and nurtured participants’ healthy relationships to self, fellow humans, and our communities, including our larger shared ecosystems.