Horticultural programs provide therapy and job preparation

Participants in the Insight Garden Program at work at San Quentin State Prison near San Francisco.

Gardening and horticultural training programs in jails and prisons around the nation not only prepare those incarcerated for potential future employment but provide horticultural therapy as well.

Horticultural therapy is the practice of using gardening activities under the supervision of a trained therapist to achieve various goals. Although it has been around for a while and is used in a variety of institutional settings, it has only recently been recognized as a tool to help inmates and ex-offenders in their emotional and physical rehabilitation.

Gardening can produce serenity, self-esteem, a sense of accomplishment and an ability to channel negative or aggressive energy into the creation of something beautiful and beneficial. In addition, it can also help those incarcerated improve their attitudes, work toward rehabilitation and prepare for their post-release lives. Research indicates that it can also reduce recidivism.

During the decade since the Insight Garden Program was founded at San Quentin State Prison outside San Francisco, more than 1,000 inmates have participated in this program that includes work in a 1,200-square-foot onsite organic flower garden and classroom instruction in plant propagation, irrigation, garden maintenance and design and budgeting, among other things.

Research conducted by Beth Waitkus, the organization’s program director, studied 117 former participants who had paroled over an eight-year period and found that only seven of the men went back to prison. IGP has partnered with Richmond, Calif.-based Rubicon Programs and Oakland, Calif.-based Planting Justice on a post-release job placement program to further its effectiveness.

The Horticultural Society of New York operates GreenHouse, another successful program, on Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail with a daily average population of 13,000 inmates. Instructors teach groups of about 37 men and women at a time the skills needed to design, install and maintain gardens using facilities that include a two-and-a-half-acre garden, a classroom and a greenhouse. More than 1,500 participants have gone through the program, according to Hilda Krus, GreenHouse’s director. The Horticultural Society has also created a vocational internship program, GreenTeam, for graduates who wish to continue to hone their gardening skills post release.

The Society has produced an excellent manual, “Growing With the Garden: A Curriculum for Practicing Horticulture with Incarcerated Individuals,” that is available as a free PDF download on its website. The manual covers everything from how to create a garden and what to grow to how to plant fruit trees and instructions on creating a prison nursery. It is an excellent resource for other jails or prisons that don’t have a garden project but would like to start one.

Philadelphia’s Roots to Reentry, another innovative program, was created by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society in partnership with local landscaping firm KJK Associates; the city of Philadelphia; Bartram’s Garden, one of the nation’s oldest botanical gardens; and the 55-acre Awbury Arboretum.

Roots to Reentry operates within the Philadelphia Prison System and offers participants a 16-week training program that includes instruction in landscaping, horticulture and other related skills, as well as life skills. The training takes place onsite at the prison system’s garden in northeast Philadelphia and at either Bartram’s Garden or the Awbury Arboretum. Participants also receive the support of a career coach to help them prepare for life post-release. The program’s partners are creating a network of potential employers to offer work to the graduates of the program once they are paroled.

While many prison industries train inmates for jobs that are either far too specialized or not especially relevant, horticultural programs provide skills that can be applied to jobs almost anywhere. And those who are entrepreneurial can start their own landscaping business or, at the very least, grow some of their own food to eat in their backyard, on a rooftop garden or in their local community garden.


For more information on the projects in this article, visit their websites at:

Insight Garden Program

Horticultural Society of New York’s GreenHouse

The Society’s “Growing With the Garden: A Curriculum for Practicing Horticulture with Incarcerated Individuals.”

Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Roots to Reentry


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