Prisoners are pictured gardening at a prison facility in Oakland, California.

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Physical, mental, and manual labor is good for your health in balanced circumstances. In Oakland, California, they are using physical work to provide job skills training to offenders and ex-offenders.

By partnering with the San Quentin State Prison’s Insight Garden Program, the non-profit organization Planting Justice transforms prisoners’ lives through a connection to nature.

The Insight Garden Program, also known as IGP, “facilitates an innovative curriculum combined with vocational gardening and landscaping training so that people in prison can reconnect to self, community, and the natural world.”

It also starts training and educating offenders with vocational gardening and landscaping training before leaving prison and assures the eligible parolees of a job once they are free of the prison’s walls. This job is doing work they are trained for and with people they already met and trust.

Upon release, Planting Justice hires former inmates, many from the local San Quentin State Prison but also from other facilities, and provides a small wage, health benefits, and a month of paid leave each year in exchange for their work tending an orchard and working as edible landscape artists for clients (so clients can grow their produce at home).

Planting Justice also provides The Education Program, which targets its workers and those in the community with education about sustainable food systems, and the Bay Area Farmer Training Program to grow agricultural skills among the participants.

Working the land has always been hard work, with constant exposure to the elements, unstable growing seasons, and the unfortunate and misinformed “class” stigma. Yet, Planting Justice has hit the nail on the head for ex-offenders in this program by offering them work: work that grows their skills, empowers them, and allows them to see a tangible benefit for themselves and their community. These ex-offenders reap the fruits of their labor, and the results are encouraging.

According to Planting Justice, “Our re-entry program has a 0 percent recidivism rate; 0% compared to California’s 65%. We have developed an innovative, sustainable, self-sufficient model for prisoner re-entry in California that actually works.”

It looks like Planting Justice gets to the root of what the chain gangs were trying to do, but this grassroots organization is doing it in a much more efficient and more ethical way. Planting Justice provides offenders and ex-offenders with the opportunity to work, not as free labor, but as a way to grow confidence, skills, and the very food that sustains them.

About Christopher Zoukis, MBA

Christopher Zoukis, MBA, is the Managing Director of the Zoukis Consulting Group, a federal prison consultancy that assists attorneys, federal criminal defendants, and federal prisoners with prison preparation, in-prison matters, and reentry. His books include Directory of Federal Prisons (Middle Street Publishing, 2020), Federal Prison Handbook (Middle Street Publishing, 2017), Prison Education Guide (PLN Publishing, 2016), and College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Company, 2014).