At the Insight Garden Program, we’ve worked with more than 1,000 people at San Quentin Prison. Aside from our great results (less than 10% rate of return to prison compared to CA’s 70%), a transformative curriculum (now grounded in the latest learning strategies from brain science), and hands in the dirt, there is one question I get repeatedly:
WHY did I start the program?
The answer: it was really a crisis of faith after 9/11. Such destruction, desolation, and despair led me reassess pretty much everything in my life and onto a journey to find my faith in humanity again. I figured if I could find humanity in prison, I could find it anywhere.
WHY do I even want to help “criminals”?
So here’s my list, in no particular order:
- When people understand options available to them, they can lead healthier, more productive lives.
- By reconnecting people to the natural world, I live more fully. I also get back from the men we work with much more than I give – in terms of respect, care, and compassion. Prisoners are people, too. The men have a saying: “You get what you give, and you give what you get.”
- Everyone has a heart (believe it or not), and though hearts can be deeply mired in hurt and pain (which is often anesthetized by alcohol and drugs and bad behavior), hearts can heal.
- I believe in second chances.
- As a citizen, I have a responsibility to care for the collective because I’m part of it.
- If we support one person, their whole relationship system outside of prison potentially benefits when they leave.
- Working with people in prison (who ARE going to leave) so they gain the skills they need to lead productive lives outside means that taxpayers don’t have to dish out almost $50,000 a year/inmate in California’s prison system.
- Reducing mass incarceration is essential — since 70% of those people return to prison (nationally), it becomes a revolving door of incarceration, with enormously negative impacts on prisoners, their families as well as the victims of their crimes — as well as the communities from which they came.
- Whether we like it or not, most prisoners eventually are released and come back to our communities. So why not work with men on the inside so they stay out once they leave?
- Instead of the old stereotype of being “tough on crime” through mass incarceration, we’re actually “being tough on crime” by working with people in prisons so they leave with the skills and resources to make it. THAT enhances public safety.
And finally, I do this work because I have observed first hand the power of transformation through connection to the natural world. That is what has given me faith in the human capacity for change, time and time again.
Photo # 1 courtesy of CDCR-San Quentin; Photo #2 courtesy of Kirk Crippens.