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Trees Inside a Prison?

July 1, 2020

By Rachel Noll

DOC Communications

Foreground, a small tree with hanging leaves standing in a circular patch of dirt, surrounded by green grass. To the right is a fence with razor wire on top. Mid picture is a sidewalk, crossing laterally behind the tree. In the distance are garden boxes, more fence line and some buildings.

One of the six weeping cherry trees recently planted at the Washington State Penitentiary. This type of tree will remain relatively small, its slender trunk and branches ideal for the type of tree planted inside a prison perimeter. (DOC Communications)

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WALLA WALLA – The Washington State Penitentiary is a lot like other state correctional facilities. Chain link fences, wire and watchtowers give the general impression of a standard correctional facility. Located in Walla Walla, Wash., the Penitentiary houses a variety of custody levels, ranging from minimum to maximum security. No trees are near the facility, and historically, patchy grass has been the standard landscape inside the facility.

After a visit to the Ohio Reformatory for Women (ORW), as part of the Warden Exchange Program, Robert Jackson, associate superintendent at the Penitentiary, believed he had an idea that could provide an aesthetically pleasing, productive way of aligning with the Washington Department of Corrections’ sustainability goals.

According to the Prison Fellowship organization, the Warden Exchange Program is an opportunity for corrections professionals to “create a legacy of safer prisons and safer communities.”

The program brings correctional leaders from facilities across the country together to share ideas and best practices. While at ORW, Jackson observed their facility had green grass and trees everywhere; something he felt was lacking at the Penitentiary.

On his return to Walla Walla, he felt inspired to incorporate some of these ideas. Yet, he knew there would be challenges, including convincing others that it is possible to have trees inside a correctional facility perimeter, safely. Through productive talks with the department’s secretary, correctional facility leadership and staff, they decided to keep the trees separated from each other and to choose types of trees that would not pose security risks. For example, smaller trees, with little limbs and narrow trunks, would be the safest choice.

Correctional Unit Supervisors Robert “Wayne” Royse and Jason McCollum, along with Corrections Specialist Christopher McGill, Classification Counselor Michael Butler and Sergeant Anthony Serven worked together to ensure the project would be successful.

The team engaged incarcerated individuals to help implement the project, and altogether they planted six weeping cherry trees and three dogwoods at the South Complex Medium Security Unit at the Penitentiary. In addition to these trees, they added 30 vegetable boxes, and 10 raised flower boxes with bee-friendly plants, like lavender, echinacea and wild flowers.

The incarcerated gardeners were thrilled to have the opportunity to be part of a beautification and sustainability project, different from their normal routine. They say that having a space that does not look typical of a correctional facility became important to them in a way they did not expect.

“Every prisoner knows that if he desires to live a life of sobriety that he needs to hang out with new friends at new places with a whole new way of thinking,” said Kieth P., an incarcerated gardener. “That principle is one of the main reasons I am excited and grateful to be a participant in the beekeeping and gardening program. We have taken five acres of sparse grass overrun with voles and weeds and transformed it into a park-like setting with trees, flowers, gardens and bees.”

Kieth is not the only participant who feels strongly about the impact of this project.

“Some of us miss hard labor and getting our hands dirty,” shared Adrian R. “This may sound strange, but being able to smell dirt after being locked up for 15 years, takes my mind out of prison and creates a sense of normalcy in my life.”

Adrian went on to share how therapeutic the garden has become for those who have been able to work on it. Little things make a big difference. Having the ability to make choices on which vegetables to plant then seeing them flourish has been particularly beneficial. He finds purpose in being able to improve his surroundings, rather than just existing in them.

Michiel O. shares these sentiments, adding that he feels as though he has truly “blossomed” after having the opportunity to plant trees and watch them grow. It may be hard to imagine, but he has not even seen a tree in years — something that many of us take for granted. Yet, while incarcerated he has had the opportunity to experience growth, both the growth of the trees, vegetables and flowers, and, most importantly for him, his own personal growth.

Having the opportunity to be outside, work with the earth and watch something thrive has proven to be incredibly beneficial for those incarcerated gardeners who participate. Not only do they gain an appreciation for being able to cultivate produce and bring much-needed sustenance to bee populations, but they also find a way to have a purpose while incarcerated which can bring a completely different feeling of positivity.

An increasing number of studies indicate that there are significant mental and physical health benefits for those who garden regularly, which provides scientific evidence to support the testimonials shared by incarcerated gardeners.

The department strives to find sustainable options wherever possible including planned garden expansions and alternative fuel sources. While doing so, Corrections is intent on reducing recidivism by providing a number of opportunities for incarcerated individuals to learn a variety of important skills and supporting their journeys to make positive changes.

“I am blessed to work with people who are able to take a seed of an idea, move it forward and make it flourish,” said Jackson. “They have clearly instilled hope, embraced change, and are providing unique opportunities for our incarcerated population. I could not be more proud of the staff and incarcerated individuals at the Washington State Penitentiary.”