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Planting Justice celebrates 10 years of cultivating gardening skills for incarcerated people

on September 20, 2019

Charles Hightower III has always loved gardening. But a few years ago, he had just become an apprentice at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco when he was convicted on domestic violence charges. While serving a 19-month sentence at San Quentin, he discovered a gardening program run in partnership with Oakland nonprofit Planting Justice.

Planting Justice employs teams of gardeners and landscapers who plant edible permaculture gardens in the Bay Area, encouraging people to grow their own food. They teach landscaping skills to people in prison, and then after release hire them to work as gardeners and pay them a living wage.

For Hightower, the program taught him techniques such as adapting a garden design and fitting it into a space, and helped prepare him for a career after his release in 2017. “They don’t look at the record,” said Hightower. “They look at what you’re bringing to the table, and how you’re trying to learn and grow.”

Today, he works for Planting Justice’s Transform Your Yard program, which is a landscaping service for private and public clients that specializes in edible gardens where people can learn permaculture and organic gardening techniques. On a September afternoon, he was standing in the nursery’s undeveloped, dirt entrance where cars are parked and gardening supplies are stacked, before its lush expanse of plants begins. He gestured around the immediate area. “It is rough, but it’s beautiful though, just to come in and, you know, look at something kind of like this—barren—and turn it into a permanent habitat for growing food or medicine,” he said.

Jose Isordia, a Planting Justice nursery technician, explains a process called “grafting,” a horticultural technique through which the tissues of different plants are joined together.

The nonprofit’s staff—who formed their board of directors on September 21, 2009—are now celebrating the group’s 10th anniversary. Over the past decade, Planting Justice’s co-founder Haleh Zandi said, they have offered employment opportunities to 40 people like Hightower after their release, and they have planted more than 500 gardens in the Bay Area. She said currently roughly one-third to one-half of their 33 full-time staff are people who were formerly incarcerated.

The organization not only works within San Quentin, but also at Maple Street Jail in San Mateo County and juvenile facilities in Alameda County and Marin County. They also operate the plant nursery in East Oakland, where they grow plants to sell and to use in landscaping jobs.

When Zandi co-founded the organization, she said, she had four programs in mind: landscaping, education, grassroots fundraising and urban farming training, and she wanted them to be integrated and support one another. It’s the combination that makes them successful, she said. For example, the training and education programs can provide gardening skills for people who then transition to working on the landscaping team, she said.

Planting Justice staff believe this support is essential to helping people avoid reoffending and returning to prison. California has one of the highest recidivism rates in the country. An average of 50 percent of people who left a California state prison facility between 2002 and 2013 wound up reincarcerated within three years of their release, according to a 2019 report published by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.

“It matters that we go into these facilities and we create relationships with folks, so that they know us,” said Lisbeth Sanchez, a farmer and educator who started working for Planting Justice’s program at the Maple Street Correctional Center in San Mateo County a few months ago. “So when they go back home they can call us, and be like, ‘Hey you got a job?’”

Zandi said they also try to figure out what kind of support a person needs, whether it’s housing, family counseling or drug treatment. They have case managers on staff who help support staff with these needs, she added. “We try to do wrap-around services, not just employment,” said Zandi.

“Folks in reentry will find those types of services at like a center, like a drop-in center, right? But not at their employer,” said Zandi. “It’s not typical for an employer to provide all of that support.”

“It’s almost like a—for lack of a better word—a warm handoff,” said Emily Harris, the policy manager at Oakland’s Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, a nonprofit focused on community-building and reducing incarceration. “The bridge is being built before people are ever released from prison.”

Recently incarcerated people face significant challenges when they try to return to life outside of prison. Housing is a major concern, particularly in the Bay Area. “Unfortunately, a number of individuals don’t have a stable place to return to,” said Douglas Butler, a former Oakland Police Department officer who said he served 20 years in prison for homicide. He currently works as a program manager at Cypress Mandela Training Center in Oakland, which provides a 16-week free pre-apprenticeship program on construction industry skills.

“A lot of guys do 25, 30, 35 years, a lot of family members have passed away, so they end up looking for a place to stay at a transitional house,” said Butler. Transitional housing is typically for homeless or low-income people who cannot afford long-term housing and is usually a room or apartment in a facility.

People also struggle to acclimate within the constraints of their release, which can limit where they can go and what they can do, Harris said. Harris believes that people don’t usually reoffend by committing new crimes, but more often are caught in some type of parole condition violation, like being outside of their 50-mile radius, or being caught drinking, which are both constraints that can be imposed on people who have committed certain offenses. It’s “stuff that wouldn’t be a crime for the average person,” said Harris.

To celebrate Planting Justice’s anniversary, Zandi said the organization is hosting a private event this weekend at the Chabot Space & Science Center in Oakland for current and former staff, collaborators, partners, board members and family. “Ten years is not very long, but it’s important to recognize a decade of hard work,” said Zandi. While she said there is still more to be done, “it is important to cultivate joy together.”

Harris said that although it’s hard to measure success, over the last decade Planting Justice has established a good model for how to help people after they leave prison. “Planting Justice is a response to the state’s failure to take care of the folks that we imprison,” said Harris. “So to me, any care that they’ve provided to people who are going through that process, and stability and support is a success and a thing that probably didn’t exist in the 10 years before.”

In the future, Zandi notes that the nonprofit might consider running a reentry home, because housing is one of the biggest challenges that their staff faces. She also hopes to partner with more “healers” who can offer services for free to staff, such as counseling, bodywork and plant-based medicine such as tonics and skin salves. Zandi said the nonprofit is still growing, and this year partnered with a church to purchase the more than century-year old Adachi Florist and Nursery in El Sobrante, California.

As for Hightower, he said he plans to stay with Planting Justice for as long as possible, because there is so much room for growth. Starting in April, Hightower will join the new nursery in El Sobrante. He would like to help other incarcerated people someday, as well.

Hightower said his time at Planting Justice has not only provided him with employment and skills training, but has also lightened the other stresses in his life. “Dealing with probation, parole,” said Hightower, “it doesn’t even feel like anything because of the support, and the healing I’ve gotten here.”

“Honestly, every human needs this,” he added.

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