Food in the U.S. prison system is notoriously awful, and access to meals is often used as a tool to manipulate inmates. But a program taking place in San Quentin has flipped that script, using quality whole foods to empower the incarcerated.
The Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State Prison, outside San Francisco, provides rehabilitation to prisoners through the practice of organic gardening.
Planting Justice, an Oakland-based nonprofit specializing in ecological education and urban food production, helps oversee the project, which allows inmates from the medium-security wing to maintain a 1,200-square-foot garden in the prison yard.
The organization also provides job opportunities for select inmates on release. The group has so far hired 10 formerly incarcerated workers from the Insight Garden Program, or IGP, with starting wages of $17.50 per hour.
In the past 12 years, the IGP at San Quentin has served more than 1,000 men, and what they receive from their work goes well beyond vocational gardening and landscaping skills. Inmates learn about food justice, the theories and practices of permaculture design, the structural inequalities of the industrial food system, and how food plays a role in human rights issues.
NPR reports that on average, more than four out of every 10 inmates returns to prison within three years. But the IGP reports that the recidivism rate for the men who participate in the program is less than 10 percent.
Similar gardening programs are taking place in other state prisons across the country, including those in Connecticut and Minnesota. It's common for those correctional facilities to donate at least a portion, if not all, of what's grown to local food banks. That can help inmates feel like they're making a positive difference in communities outside their prison walls.
Such is the case at Minnesota Correctional Facility at Red Wing, where inmate gardener Jeremy Buschman explained to MPR News, "After all the stuff we've done wrong for being here, it makes me feel better doing something to help other people."