COS 63-3
From utility to significance: Exploring ecological connection, ethics and personal transformation through a gardening and environmental literacy program within San Quentin Prison

Wednesday, August 13, 2014: 8:40 AM
Regency Blrm E, Hyatt Regency Hotel
Melissa K. Benham, Department of Environmental Studies, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA
Rachel O'Malley, Environmental Studies Department, San Jose State University, San Jose, CA
Anne Marie Todd, Department of Communication Studies, San Jose State University
Deanna L. Fassett, Department of Communication Studies, San Jose State University
Kathryn E. Waitkus, Insight Garden Program at San Quentin

Parallels emerge while considering society’s environmental practices alongside our criminal justice system. Common among these are “throw-away” approaches, which often yield more complex problems then those they were originally attempting to solve. Personal transformation is often expressed through a deepening sense of context, purpose and reconnection extending beyond concerns of oneself, mere academic achievement, or employability. Circumstances of imprisonment often exacerbate a thirst for such new meaning-making, highly relevant to both criminal and ecological rehabilitation. Primary field data was gathered from incarcerated men, with a focus on the Insight Garden Program inside San Quentin State Prison. A mixed method approach was used, comprised of open-ended qualitative interviews and three previously established multiple-choice survey instruments: an environmental literacy quiz; a Locus of Control test (a psychological survey measuring one’s sense of self-agency); and a survey instrument which stratifies responses regarding climate change opinion. Two control groups inside San Quentin’s same H-unit were included: inmates participating in other programs but not gardening, and inmates in no programming at all. This research explores patterns in the ways people come to terms with personal moral obligation, as well as how restorative ecological engagement may be transformational for humans in personal crisis.


Participants described prison programming in general as contributing profoundly to their personal transformation. Moreover, programming with strong ecological focus offered vocational, intellectual, emotional and even spiritual growth, which in turn aids in reducing recidivism. Given a sample size of 58 participants total, the 174 surveys conducted were not primarily intended to achieve statistical significances so much as potentially augment an overall perspective, in combination with the qualitative data, for individuals, or for groups. Some correlations of significance were observed, however, between groups, across tests, and in comparisons with the general US population. Most intriguing, analysis of the qualitative interview data yielded patterns of progressive change in personal and/or ecological relationship (i.e. personal healing, compassionate interdependence, ethical embodiment.) Participants’ responses were also sorted into predominantly interhuman “vs.” ecological concerns, in their reported growth. Both are important, related concerns to this context, and to society. These compelling dialogues illustrate the degree to which prison programming experiences have profoundly expanded and nurtured participants’ healthy relationships to self, fellow humans, and our communities, including our larger shared ecosystems. Ecological connection shows a bi-directional healing process. There is acute recovery to be made in both directions, and on all sides of these false divides.