Former Inmates Garden for Change

planting-justice.jpg“I’d be out there running amok, if not dead or locked up again -- Planting Justice saved my life,” says Julius Jones. Sitting in the sun on the 5-acre “Mother Orchard” in El Sobrante, Jones and other recent inmates of San Quentin State Prison offer nothing but praise for the Oakland-based nonprofit, founded in 2009 by Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi. As one of 31 former prisoners hired by Planting Justice in the past 7 years, Jones is among a growing number of participants in the Holistic Re-Entry program, which educates former inmates about the benefits of regenerative landscape design, called permaculture. The program starts with garden training during incarceration, and provides employment opportunities for prisoners upon their release, translating planting skills into living-wage job opportunities.

One of their successful job programs is the “Transform Your Yard” service, which helps local residents replace existing landscapes with edible gardens, or “food forests.” This service aims to provide healthy, sustainable food options for homeowners and renters in the Bay Area, as well as mentoring for residents to learn about their own gardens in the process. Like much of their work, Planting Justice strives to make this option available to all, subsidizing garden work for low-income families through fundraising and nursery proceeds.

Planting Justice is a multi-faceted organization, offering educational services in high schools and communities in addition to their rehabilitation program, two nurseries, and landscape service. At heart they believe that by growing food in disadvantaged urban areas, they can provide meaningful work, build communities, and help to ease the massive problem of incarceration in America.
At over 2.2 million adults, the U.S. prison population is the largest in the world. In California, 65% of those released will return to the prison system within 3 years. Many of these individuals have few options when they do get out, given reporting requirements on job applications and the stigma associated with their status. At the same time, finding housing is also difficult, meaning they often end up in neighborhoods with little or no access to healthy food. Without access to good food or jobs, it is no wonder that so many end up back in prison.

In contrast with high numbers across the state, employees of Planting Justice boast a 0% recidivism rate -- not a single one has broken parole or returned to prison. This example is one piece of a growing body of research into the benefits of urban agriculture, which have long been promoted by enthusiasts but only recently studied for measureable outcomes. A thorough review of current research on the subject can be found here.

Numbers aside, there is a palpable sense of accomplishment among the former inmates working at Planting Justice. Maurice “Big Moe” Bell can’t keep back a smile as he motions to the plantings around him -- “this farm...everything that you see here is pretty much what I helped build”. Jones adds, with a grin of his own, “the smiles on people’s faces...I put that there”. By transforming abandoned lots and paved areas into lush, ecologically conscious gardens, these former prisoners transform their own lives and in turn, their communities.

You too can get involved! Support these great programs by submitting a consultation request to Transform your Yard into a food forest. You can also help by volunteering at the farm for a day, or by donating to the cause.

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