Gardens and Inmates: How Growing Food is Helping Prisoners

There are many community programs that involve gardens, educating people on how to grow their own food and allowing them to get their hands dirty in the process. But growing produce isn’t just happening in co-op garden spaces, it’s also taking place in prisons.

From California to Minnesota to Pennsylvania to even the United Kingdom, gardens are being used as part of correctional facilities, both to empower prisoners but also to teach them skills that are applicable back in the world outside of the prison walls.

At San Quentin State Prison, the Insight Garden Program (IGP) recently celebrated its first harvest from the prison’s organic vegetable garden. The program put in a flower garden in 2003, and now inmates can add vegetables to the list of greenery that adds a little brightness to otherwise bleak surroundings. “Itís our victory garden,” Beth Waitkus, director of IGP told Civil Eats.

San Quentin has a policy against selective sharing; that means that if everyone in the prison can’t have access to something, no one has access to it. Because the garden doesn’t produce enough to feed the 3,700 inmates, that meant that they had to find a way to use the fresh produce, and the prisoners working in the garden came up with an idea to donate it to a local food bank, allowing them to give back to the community — an opportunity that doesn’t come every day for those behind bars.

In Oregon, nonprofit organization Lettuce Grow works with 12 different correctional facilties, training volunteers to garden with inmates and focusing on sustainability practices. Classes through the organization, which inmates can attend, even lead towards the Oregon State University Extension Home Horticultural Certificate.

On the other side of the globe, Dartmoor Prison in the United Kingdom has had raised beds since 2007, an idea that came from prison officer Ivan Judd. The yards of the prison were completely revamped, and prisoners were a part of the construction process. “Nearly all of the guys in the resettlement unit brought some kind of skill to the project. One of the inmates had run a market garden so he had a lot of knowledge; there were lots of carpentry skills too,” Jane Knight told The Telegraph. Seven years later the gardens are still there, an established part of the prison. Cabbages, beets and broccoli flourish and there’s on site composting that goes back into the garden soil. There are even chickens.

Studies have shown that there are many health benefits to gardens, including stress reduction and improvement in overall well being. That makes gardening a great part of rehabilitation programs. It can also be a good transitional program, ďItís like stepping back into real life,Ē Tyffani Zirk told the Portland Tribune last year, just before being released from her five-month sentence.

Inmates involved in these types of programs also have the benefit of learning skills that will be applicable outside of the prison. At Rikers Island in New York, the Horticultural Society of New York has been running a program called GreenHouse since 1996. Here the focus is very much educational, with the program providing remedial education, skill development and vocational training in horticulture. That includes hands-on experience like designing and installing gardens, as well as the design and construction of garden fixtures.

But there are more than just benefits to inmates with these in-prison gardens. At Sandusky County Jail in Ohio, the prison garden helps saves tens of thousands of dollars, getting both food from the garden for inmates, as well as meat from the garden’s chickens.

Above all, gardens help build community. “The major finding Ö is that the guys donít self-segregate in the garden like they do in the prison yard. Thereís something about the diversity of ecological systems that teaches us how to come together as a community,” Waitkus told Civil Eats. Now that’s a reason to start gardening.

Photo Credit: jennydowning

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Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brown7 months ago

thanks for sharing :)

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompsonabout a year ago

Learning survival is always in style. Lucky prisoners.

Melania Padilla
Melania Padillaabout a year ago

Oh, this is good! Love this idea

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill1 years ago

I think every prison should have to raise their own food. Any extra could be sold to help defray some of the cost of maintaining the prisons and inmates.

Tara W.
Tara W.1 years ago

Wonderful! Fresh air and fresh food!

Nils Anders Lunde


Lucas Kolasa
Lucas Kolasa1 years ago


Alan Lambert
Alan` Lambert1 years ago

Training inmates for useful post incarceration careers is a crucial part of ending recidivism.

Anna Undebeck
Anna Undebeck1 years ago


Jana DiCarlo
Jana DiCarlo1 years ago

I am very much in agreement with creating useful jobs/activities for inmates - I have always been against them sitting back and wallowing in nothingness, up to no good.

Gardening, horticulture, the keeping of animals, retraining /fostering pets and getting them ready for adoption, etc etc. They MUST contribute in a significant way to society - not that we just feed and house them to do nothing - then let them out more useless than when they went in , only to re-offend and then we pay to keep them some more.