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Interview: Beth Waitkus & the Insight Garden Program

September 18, 2017

Part 1: Vision, challenges, and successes 

After 9/11, when someone asked me if I would grow a garden in San Quentin, I realized this was an opportunity to integrate my passion for environmental and social justice and an opportunity to find my faith in humanity again. Over the past 15 years, my faith in the capacity for people to change has been reaffirmed time and time again.

-Beth Waitkus, Executive Director, Insight Garden Program

In this two-part series, Grassroots Change staff member and Insight Garden Program volunteer, Ellie Gertler, interviews Beth Waitkus, Founder and Executive Director of the Insight Garden Program, which works to transform prisoners’ lives through connection to nature. During the past 15 years, the Insight Garden Program has expanded to eight prisons in California and two in Indiana, as well as a reentry program in New York. The first part of this interview covers the inception and history of the program, and initial goals, challenges, successes.  

Grassroots Change (GC): Tell us a about what motivated you to start the Insight Garden Program (IGP).  What would you say was the driving force?

Beth Waitkus (BW): In 2001, I was very dissatisfied with my work in the corporate world. 9/11 was a pivotal moment in my life – I began to question, “what am I really doing with my life and what legacy do I want to leave?” So I began a journey to identify a different future I could create for myself. The journey was a culmination of career counseling and studying Buddhism – focusing on action in the present moment.

During that time I met someone who worked at San Quentin [State Prison] who invited me in for a tour. I thought this would be a really interesting place to practice mindfulness. During my volunteer training, I met someone who, after learning more about my background, asked if I would grow a garden in the prison, and that’s when I thought, “this is it,” this would integrate my passion for environmental and social justice and provide an opportunity to find my faith in humanity again. And over the past 15 years, my faith in the capacity for people to change has been reaffirmed time and time again.

GC:  What were the initial goals of IGP? How have they changed over time, if at all?

BW: The initial goal of our program was to build a garden on a prison yard and see what happened. Over time, however, I realized that connection to nature is critical for people to get reconnected with themselves and their communities, and could be a truly healing experience for people in prison. Over time, our goal has transformed to bring IGP to as many places as possible in an attempt to influence the criminal justice system through connecting with like-minded partners across the country.

GC: What was your vision at the outset, and how has your vision evolved?

BW: It was a small vision in the beginning – to connect people to nature by building a garden on a prison yard. Now our vision has grown to ending cycles of mass incarceration and creating safer and more connected communities. We want to establish this network of community organizations that can all work together and have people in prison return to their communities in leadership roles who can help strengthen and heal our communities.

GC: Looking back to the start of IGP, how did you develop the strategy to accomplish your goals?

Photo courtesy of IGP

BW: We developed our approach and strategy through collaboration – by building relationships with all key stakeholders. To move through the resistance we’ve faced, we’ve educated people, provided facts and data about gardening, and through those efforts, were able to identify who our advocates were and pursued working with them.

In the early years of our program, some of the key elements that led to our success included strong leadership from the San Quentin Warden, Jeanie Woodford. From there, our strategy for creating support has been to develop personal relationships, find areas in the system that were open to engagement, and continuously brainstorm about how to overcome challenges. I think the people we work with in the prisons aren’t used to that approach, and for some that was very empowering. Here’s an example of this collaborative effort of overcoming challenges:

A couple of years ago during the draught, there was water leaking from the irrigation system and the prison wanted to remediate this issue quickly. They called me and said “Beth, we want to come up with some solutions to how we could still use this water for the garden without wasting the water… Come in and meet with our senior staff.” Then we brainstormed ideas and took those ideas to the inmates… and staff, and asked for their input and ideas. Ultimately, we ended up saving the steam water from the Chow Hall in a 40-gallon bucket every week, and then our class participants hand-watered the garden in addition to the existing irrigation system.

GC: What strategies have you used to overcome some of the challenges you’ve faced, and what advice do you have for others?

BW: Finding common ground: No matter people’s political opinions, their mental frameworks, what they do, or what they believe in, people love to garden, and gardening brings people together. What’s really important is finding common ground and working from a place of empathy rather than resistance, and if there is resistance, really addressing that on a deeper level. We have to remember that a lot of us want the same thing; we just have different ways of getting there.

GC: What external factors or conditions do you see as being key to your organization’s success?

BW: Some external factors that have been key to our success are that this is a bipartisan issue, so we have support from both sides of the aisle. Through the American Correctional Association we are also gaining access to more people in corrections nationally, and gaining a wider audience of supporters. We have a solid reputation that we didn’t have 10 or 15 years ago. One of the ACA’s Committees is dedicated to “greening” prisons, which means less environmental footprints for prisons, creative ways to involve people who are incarcerated in learning about and getting involved in green jobs, and how revenue or savings from green initiatives (like composting and recycling) can be reinvested into programs. For example, our program in Indiana is paid for through their recycling program.

Over the course of the last 15 years, the conversation here in California has shifted from punishment only to rehabilitation. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) wants to get there and we are part of that change. The fact that laws to address some of the systemic issues of mass incarceration are shifting here in California, and the national conversation is a bipartisan one is great, and there are a lot of really creative ideas happening across the country that show progress in this movement.

GC: Are there certain factors or conditions that are necessary to implement a garden program inside a prison or to engage the community?

BW: Funding is always crucial. Our work is not just about gardening; we also have a very robust garden curriculum. We train facilitators, do outreach and volunteer recruitment, as well as ongoing technical assistance. An enormous amount of logistical work goes into implementing our gardening program inside prisons because of the tools and equipment involved. We also need real interest from our partners, so we go into places that really want us.

From individual donors, to philanthropic organizations to government grants and revenue generation, we are diversifying our funding for ongoing program sustainability. Regarding the need for financial support, we’re receiving calls from prisons all over California that want to implement our program – and need to further advocate with the legislature to raise awareness about the importance of renewable grant cycles.

GC:  What do you see as the core resources available to IGP that have contributed to its success?

BW: Relationship-building is critical. The people that help provide our programming are incredible, and we seem to attract the right people to the program, both in California and nationally – which is really heartening.  A core resource is gathering more partners to create a strong, connected movement. We’re involved in an effort to support the development of a California in-prison program association so we can figure out how to focus our power as constituents and as people who do really deep work to advocate for the change we want to create.

GC: Have you seen social or policy change within the prison system and beyond since the start of IGP?

BW: Nationally the conversation has changed quite a bit; it’s so different from what it was 15 years ago. New laws have been passed that have positively impacted the system, including California’s AB 109, aiming to reduce the prison population. In California, Prop 57 allows people who are incarcerated to get credits for their participation in prison programs and activities, which means the people in our programs could earn up to one week off their sentence. There’s a bail reform process going on at the federal level as well, and more legislation that will help reduce ongoing cycles of incarceration.

I do believe IGP has had an impact on policy change. My sense is, if it weren’t for programs like ours – real programs that are creating real transformation – the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation may not have paid as much attention to reform and we wouldn’t be where we are today. Most real change takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Insight Garden Project: Timeline

  • 2002: Launch of the initial garden program at San Quentin State Prison
  • 2003: First garden built
  • 2004: Beth Waitkus publishes her Ph.D. thesis, “The Impact of a Garden Program on the Physical Environment and Social Climate of a Prison Yard at San Quentin State Prison”
  • 2004-present: Classes for prisoners at San Quentin continue to evolve
  • 2010: Insight Garden Program hosts the first green career fairs in collaboration with California Reentry Program, joined by individuals from across the San Francisco Bay Area working in the environmental, green jobs, and community college sectors.
  • 2013: ABC Nightly News with Diane Sawyer reports on Insight Garden Program, raising national awareness. Beth receives a community service award at her former high school, which leads to start-up funding to expand the Insight Garden Program. The first step is redesigning the curriculum so it can be replicated in other facilities and states.
  • 2014: The successful San Quentin garden program is replicated for the first time at California State Prison—Solano. IGP incorporates as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit under the IRS code and Beth begins attending and presenting at American Correctional Association conferences, building IGP’s reputation and developing an interest in national replication.
  • 2015-2017: The Insight Garden Program expands to seven more prisons in California, two prisons in Indiana, and a reentry program in New York City.
  • 2017: With growing national reputation, IGP expands its focus on becoming a reentry bridge for people leaving prison.

This interview has been edited for length.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Beth Waitkus’ interview on growing a grassroots movement building on the Insight Garden Project.

Read about Ellie Gertler’s garden project in the San Luis Obispo County, California, Jail: Part 1 and 2.