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Garden Therapy at Max
By Tracey E. Zeckhausen , Chief of Information & Public Relations Rhode Island Department of Corrections
Published: 07/25/2011

Gardenmax-ri-doc It’s not the sort of place one would expect to find a beautiful, expansive garden full of flowers and vegetable plants. On a beautiful summer afternoon recently, the new garden at Maximum Security and the inmates and volunteers who have created it received a special blessing from Bishop Thomas Tobin. The Bishop was also on hand to ceremonially hand over the lock to a new shed located in the back of the fenced in area housing the garden, purchased by Catholic Chaplain Martha Paone with grant money from the Diocese.

It began back in February with classroom instruction and a variety of seeds planted in soil and stored on a plant stand in the Education wing of Maximum. Terry Meyer, a cartographer and volunteer Pilates instructor at the Women’s facilities, Kate Lacouture, a landscape architect, and Vera Brown, past president of the Rhode Island Federation of Garden Clubs, made the commitment to travel to the facility twice a week to instruct and assist the inmate gardeners. The idea began when Assistant Director of Rehabilitative Services Roberta Richman and Warden James Weeden first started discussing what type of programming could be beneficial for the small number (about 30) of inmates within the Department who are serving Life without Parole, the state’s stiffest sentence. When they considered how to bring hope and meaning into the otherwise bleak existence of these men, the idea of a community garden was born.

Catholic Chaplain Martha Paone, who had been leading a support group for Lifers, was a natural to serve as facility coordinator for the project. Warden James Weeden’s enthusiasm and support have also been critical to the project’s initial success. Since Ms. Paone had been working with the men and had a strong sense of their suitability for this type of experience, she recommended about 10 men to the Warden, and he approved their participation.

To enable them to claim it as their own, the men were asked to design the garden themselves. Terry, the map maker, made a map, which was a joining of the ten designs. The final product includes a butterfly garden of flowering Fathers perennials along the fence enclosure and organic vegetable gardens capable of producing enough to feed all 400 inmates in the building. Tomatoes, lettuce, herbs (including chives, oregano, tarragon, sage, lavender, saffron, dill and cilantro), arugula, strawberries, blueberries, and radishes are among the harvest.

The seeds started producing sometime in March, and a rototiller was rented in April to prepare the ground and begin carrying out the design. Botany classes were offered to the men and guest speakers were brought in to teach. According to Ms. Meyer and Ms. Lacoutoure, each guest speaker fell in love with the project and asked to return and continue their involvement.

Two soil tests were taken and then sent to UMass./Amherst. The first harvest took place in late spring and yielded 9 bags of lettuce, spinach, and peas used in the salad for that evening’s meal.

“A lot of people seemed to have the same idea at the same time,” notes Terry Meyer. “It was like kismet the way it all came together.”

One of the challenges the organizers faced was the issue of tools being introduced into a Maximum Security prison. Everything was counted and logged in and out to ensure the safety of everyone involved. The trellis was made with yarn instead of wire.

What has the garden meant for the men involved in its design and entrusted with its daily upkeep? “For many of them,” Chaplain Paone says, “The garden recalls fond memories. Fragrance is big to them. Their senses are waking up in a way they haven’t in a very long time. It also benefits nature and the other inmates in the facility who pass by it every day as they move through the yard. “We have had other inmates thank us,” notes Terry.

During the brief blessing ceremony with Bishop Tobin, attended by Director Wall, Assistant Director Richman, and several others, one of the Lifers read a reflection he’d written thanking the volunteers for their gifts of time and talent and noting how much the garden has come to mean in his life. The group had created a thank you card for the Bishop, which was given to him. “This is a group of men who had no hope or possibility of redemption,” noted Director A.T. Wall. “The garden symbolizes that for them.”

Editor's note: Reprinted with permission from the RI Department of Corrections.

Other articles by Zeckhausen



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