Garden rehabilitation project proves benefits of horticultural therapy for the incarcerated

At the San Quentin State Prison just outside of San Francisco, inmates are working hard at a simple but well-maintained garden; they are digging soil, planting seeds and watering the crops. The plants they harvest are donated to local non-profits.

“Our mission is to rehabilitate people by connecting them back to the earth. By doing the garden we’re building community, and they’re also getting an environmental education as well,” said Beth Waitkus, the founder of Insight Garden Program.

Waitkus started the project after the September 11 attacks with the hope of recovering her faith in humanity. A series of conversations led her to work at San Quentin State Prison under the Insight Prison Project, a rehabilitation project for the incarcerated, and later, taking her love of the natural world, began what is today known as the Insight Garden Program.


Horticultural therapy has long been used at institutions such as hospitals and retirement homes to help with the physical and mental health of residents. The Insight Garden Program, by facilitating “inner gardener classes” on meditation and emotional process work and “outer gardening” in which men are given the responsibility of working in the gardens, gives the incarcerated a renewed purpose in life.

“Coming in this prison every week for the past eleven years, my faith in humanity – I get my faith time and time again because of the transformation I see these men go through,” said Waitkus.

California has the largest number of incarcerated individuals in America, and the rate of re-offence is high. Less than 10% of those who are paroled or finish their time return to jail, showing that the program is successful.  

“When I’m doing it, I’m able to focus on my thoughts,” said one inmate. “On how, you know, we have to give the plants care, and we have to give ourselves care as well.”

Images via Washington Post