Community Partnership Through Transformative Justice: The Healing Garden Project at the Oregon State Penitentiary

Community Partnership Through Transformative Justice: The Healing Garden Project at the Oregon State Penitentiary

Miyuki Arimoto (Western Oregon University, USA) and Melissa Buis Michaux (Willamette University, USA)
Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 21
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3056-6.ch011

Abstract

In the Foreword to Gerard Robinson and Elizabeth English Smith's Education for Liberation volume on educational initiatives in prison, Newt Gingrich and Van Jones note that educational programs “do something powerful: they give hope and dignity to the incarcerated.” The authors wholeheartedly agree and while they recognize the importance of higher education programs that confer degrees and therefore credentials out in the free world, they find that education can be broadly understood in prison in ways that greatly enhance the hope and dignity of the incarcerated. In this chapter, they explore the creation of a Japanese-style healing garden at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), a maximum security, 2,000-person male prison in Salem, Oregon. This prisoner-led initiative was a resounding success, despite all the odds against it, because it was animated by a philosophy of transformative justice that both prison administration and prisoners could believe in, and it embraced the need for meaningful and inclusive community partnerships.
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Introduction

If what we were doing in the past was working, we wouldn’t be building more prisons. – Brandon Kelly, Superintendent of Oregon State Penitentiary1

In the Forward to an edited volume on educational initiatives in prison, an unlikely duo, Newt Gingrich and Van Jones, note that educational programs “do something powerful: they give hope and dignity to the incarcerated” (Gingrich & Jones, 2019). Gingrich’s embrace of criminal justice reform is a startling turnaround from his position in the early 1990s when, as Speaker of the House, he championed longer prison sentences, tough on crime measures, and increased funding to build state prisons. The partnership of Jones and Gingrich demonstrates the bipartisan support for reforming the prison system. We wholeheartedly agree with their focus on “hope and dignity” for the incarcerated and the role of education in both. While we recognize the importance of higher education programs that confer degrees and therefore credentials out in the free world, we find that education can be broadly understood in prison in ways that greatly enhance that hope and dignity. In this chapter, we explore the creation of a Japanese-style healing garden at the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), a maximum security, 2,000 person male prison in Salem, Oregon. This resident-led initiative was a resounding success, despite all the odds against it, because it was animated by a philosophy of transformative justice that grew from education classes focused on alternative conceptions of criminal justice. This alternative philosophy was fostered in classes that brought outside college students into prison to explore the causes and consequences of mass incarceration and what to do about it. Both prison administration and incarcerated people embraced the need for alternatives to the punitive prison system. Meaningful and inclusive community partnerships made the garden possible by generating positive attention to the project and through fundraising of both in-kind and monetary donations. Successful completion of this extraordinary garden was the culmination of many years of work. While the garden itself delivers therapeutic benefits from exposure to nature, as well as educational benefits around horticulture and construction, the process to get there required extensive project management and grant-writing, bureaucratic navigation and problem-solving. The larger project gave incarcerated men a sense of purpose, and validated their ability to do good works and to succeed.

Johnny Cofer, an incarcerated person with a Life sentence, did not participate in a degree program but he did take a Restorative Justice class that encourages men to be accountable for the harms they have committed and to find ways to make amends. Professor Nathlene Frener ends every class with the mantra: “Once you know, you owe.” The class inspires men on the inside to look for ways to apply their new knowledge, improve their lives, and better their world however they can. Since Cofer does not have a release date, he turned his attention to influencing the prison environment itself. OSP is Oregon’s oldest prison; it just turned 150 years old. The buildings are in a great deal of disrepair, and the cell blocks are five tiers of traditional 5x8 feet cells made from cinder blocks with metal bars. The bottom three tiers are double bunked. The top two are not because it would not be structurally sound. The larger prison campus has a number of buildings—an industrial laundry where many men work, a furniture factory, a couple of segregated housing units, including death row. There is a yard with a track and grass on the inside but when Cofer looked around 5 years ago, he mostly saw barbed wire and concrete. He decided he really wanted to build a garden with a koi pond. This was how he wanted to give back and improve the prison environment.

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