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Life Inside

Doing Whatever It Takes to Create a Prison Garden

“The staff didn't have a clue.”

I am a gardener in prison, if such a thing is possible. I tend a garden outside my housing unit — kneeling, kneading, watering. What I do for plants is very different from how this place handles me.

I know a considerable amount about the plants that have been in captivity with me. We have been sharing the same confined space for decades. When you've been around someone for 24 years, you pick up a few things about what they like, what their needs are, what it takes to make them happy or what to do when they are sick.

This is not a one-way relationship. By tending to the plants, I have reconnected with myself. Seeing them live has opened a window for my guilt, my self-hatred from the ever-present fact that I took two lives.

In October of 1991, after they mowed the Reception Yard lawn for the first time in almost a year, I was part of the volunteer inmate crew who swept up the grass. They did not give us rakes to use — just brooms, bare hands, and plastic bags.

The dirt contained remnants from the prison’s construction — bits and pieces of concrete, rebar, wood and nails, familiar things in an unfamiliar setting. Clearing the dirt was a beginning, an unconscious permission for me to clear the insides of myself.

A year after I arrived in prison, I was scheduled to have my annual program review. My available job assignments were auto body repair, welding, upholstery, cosmetology, and vocational landscaping. I knew which job I wanted; the patch outside my housing unit was waiting.

Starting a prison garden is all about your interactions with staff. Whether it’s asking for a “one-way” to get back into your room after the designated time has passed, or trying to get back out the door again in the morning to go play in the dirt, your housing officer holds all the keys.

I was a Close B Custody inmate, which meant that I was at a higher “level of staff supervision required to ensure institutional security and public safety” and that my “activities shall be within the confines of the approved program housing unit.” Read: I was not supposed to be let outdoors by myself, and certainly not unsupervised. But my staff observed that being outside seemed to keep me sane.

Gardening was a distraction, a kind of half-freedom from the constant loop always sounding in my thoughts: I’m here forever and never to be free, I’m here forever and never to be free. So I welcomed the exhausting labor. I pored over textbooks, teaching myself about soil composition, the importance of soil aeration, and what substances it takes to make "good" soil.

Do you know what hardpan is? It’s a layer of hard soil cemented by almost insoluble construction materials that restrict the downward movement of water and roots. To dig into that hard ground, I used plastic spoons, can lids, the metal plate that screwed the mop head into the mop stick. Anything I could get my hands on.

Work crews were often assigned to go prune rose bushes, privet hedges, or install plants in front of the housing units. Part of my job was to load whatever we needed for those projects onto the loading cart and drive it to wherever it needed to go. Many times, the staff saw me drive by with potted plants loaded into the back of my cart. What they didn't know was that I often hid hormone powder, seed packets, a hose spray nozzle, plant fertilizer, and even worms (which would also improve the quality of the hardpan) in the soil at the bottom of those pots. I dropped my hidden supplies off at my unit and then continued on my way. The staff didn't have a clue.

Mine was the art of procurement, the act of liberating something from its captivity in one place to bring it somewhere else, usually someplace closer to me.

Timing my drop offs was most important of all — when was certain staff taking lunch? Who had called in sick? I had to be ever watchful. So I was, and not only did I get the big sacks, I also got loads of cinder blocks, the very material that my prison walls are made of, which I needed to make a barrier around my plants.

Now, after two decades of tending to the plants, I have learned how different birds sound — from the agitated pitch of white-crested house sparrows, fussing as they chase each other through the small bushes, to the excited chirping of the gulls.

Within these moments of observation, I am not thinking about this place. I don’t notice the razor wire. My ears are closed to the arguments about dope or "prison love" that drift along the walkway. I’m distracted from the truth that another year has passed in this place.

I am in that shared moment with the birds. Water cascades down my feathers, my beak dips into the water. For an instant, I am free.