Garden program provides crucial link for parolees after prison

Anthony Forrest surveys the vegetable beds he maintains with the help of his students at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

Anthony Forrest surveys the vegetable beds he maintains with the help of his students at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

The blender roared to life, shredding kale, mint, strawberries, bananas and ice into a delicious concoction. Anthony Forrest, the smoothie maker, handed cups of the nutritious potion to the students surrounding him in the school garden at Fremont High School in East Oakland.

Forrest and his colleague Vernon Ray Dailey both work for Planting Justice, a nonprofit advocating for locally grown food, food education, jobs and shared green spaces. Forrest and Dailey are not secretive about their past: Between the two of them, they have served over 30 years in prisons around the state. But when they encountered the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State Prison, they received a new lease on life.

“Thought it was too good to be true,” Dailey said of the program.

The Insight Garden Program teaches farming, permaculture design and gardening skills. After the inmates finish the program and are paroled, they move directly into a paid job at Planting Justice for at least $17.50 an hour. At Planting Justice, they can support themselves financially, connect with the family-like workforce at the non-profit, and reconnect with their community.

Planting Justice serves as crucial waypoint for parolees transitioning back into society. “Those first few months are critical,” said Steven Raphael, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley. “There are many employers who express extreme reluctance to hire people who have been convicted of a serious crime.”

While Dailey canvasses on behalf of Planting Justice’s mission, Forrest is focused on gardening and teaching schoolchildren about nutrition at high schools throughout the East Bay and even at juvenile hall. “They make smoothies for one another—I don’t have to make them anymore!” Forrest said.

Before class ended, a group of particularly enthusiastic students watered the vegetable beds. Thanksgiving break would begin the next day, so one of the students offered to come back during break and jump over the fence to water the plants when no one else could.

Forrest reminded the eager student that hopping the fence would definitely break the rules, and the garden would be able to survive under the layer of hay they had laid down on the garden beds to lock moisture into the soil. It was easy for Forrest to understand why the students were so eager to get back into the garden, “Every morning about 4:30 am when I get up to water the garden, when it’s dark, and the water hits that basil, that rosemary. It smells so…” he drifted off wistfully.

Click the audio player at right to hear about how Forrest and Dailey ended up at Planting Justice and how they went from prison to gardening to earn a living.

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