“I was in the cafeteria of the Men’s Maximum Security Facility in Cranston, Rhode Island, to attend the graduation ceremony for education program participants. That morning, 16 men with life sentences received ‘Certificates for Apprentice Gardeners’ recognizing a year’s work in the prison yard garden. Seeing them stand up there with their certificates, peeking at the paper held within the black folders with gold trim, it was clear the garden had meaning for them.” – Katherine Cannella
Katherine Cannella, Assoc. ASLA, who graduated with a master’s of landscape architecture from the University of Virginia in 2014, won a traveling fellowship from UVA to study prison gardens. She wants to use landscape approaches to engage all members of the public, including those at the margins. Prison gardens offer an opportunity to create places to heal for those who must spend time outside of society.
In the summer of last year, Cannella visited ten prisons and one jail with participatory gardens across the United States and Europe, at both men’s and women’s institutions with a range of security levels. Some prison gardens are tucked in corners or between walls or fences. Others occupy prominent places, by the entry or bordering walkways. A few are found in fields.
To prepare for each visit, she would copy plans and aerials into a sketchbook. These initial drawings provided a framework for quick annotations during the often brief time on site. She modeled her research methods on post-occupancy evaluations that included observational walks and interviews with users. While her movement throughout the facility and interaction with inmates was limited, her conversations led to a deeper understanding of the gardens.
Cannella began her conversations with inmates, officers, administrators, and garden program facilitators by asking, “What has your time in the garden meant to you?”
Speaking with inmates at places as diverse as the Men’s Max in Rhode Island and the Halden Prison in Norway, she discovered prison gardens serve many functions. They provide a sense of freedom; offer a comfortable place; supply fresh food for the prison kitchen; connect the prison and the surrounding community; create an aesthetic experience; provide a link with home; and serve as part of ecological network. Each prison is a “living institution,” with a profound impact on inmates who garden as well as the prison community as a whole.
Cannella documented the anatomy of these living institutions. Using site photos and observational drawings as well as layered axonometric drawings, Cannella showed the layout and spatial relationships of six of the sites.
In the end, she quoted Ann Whiston Spirn, FASLA, a professor of landscape architecture at MIT, who said, “The simple act of digging garden soil in preparation for spring planting triggers strong emotions: a sense of connection to the earth and the regeneration of life. It is an act of nurturance and an expression of faith in renewal.” The prison garden is a place of freedom and offers inmates purpose.
This guest post is by Jennifer Livingston, Student ASLA, Master’s of Landscape Architecture candidate, University of Virginia.