Students and faculty coming together to plant seeds is not an unusual sight here at Occidental – figuratively and literally. One group of gardeners is sowing more than just seeds. After learning the tricks of the trade here on campus, the Prison Beautification Club (PBS) brings the fruits of its labor – skills and produce alike – to the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC) in Norco. Its members teach inmates how to garden in an effort to simultaneously aid in their rehabilitation process, improve prison grounds and raise incarceration awareness.
President and Spanish studies major Richelle Jurasek (junior) found inspiration for the club while volunteering at the Prison Education Project (PEP), a nonprofit that works in collaboration with universities to expand educational opportunities for inmates in the state of California.
“Our club is the first of its kind. Richelle wanted to start something a little different because you don’t exactly get to work hands-on with the prisoners in PEP. She wanted a program that could directly teach them something and also make an impact. So she created
this,” PBC co-president and Group Language major Janet Lee (junior) said.
Though the Norco prison is advertised as a rehabilitation center, it offers few rehabilitative programs as of now. Cynthia Y. Tampkins, the warden of Norco, has been working to generate more therapeutic projects.
“The prison had specifically wanted to start a gardening program, so we came in at the perfect time. We told [Tampkins] we’ll provide all the materials, the supplies, the funding, and all they need to provide are the willing inmates,” Lee said.
Tampkins is not the only person at Norco appreciating the club’s work. The Community Resource Manager at Norco, Delinia Lewis, is praises the club for their efforts.
“It’s not every day you find a group of dedicated youth who have chosen to put down the video gaming control and pick up a shovel to make a difference in someone’s life,” Lewis said. “The Prison Beautification Club is one small way to show our inmate population that their lives have value.”
Club members find gardening to be a relaxing and hands-on experience that is easy to pick up.
“Gardening has this great effect where you’re working
with mother nature and it’s really calm[ing], and the feeling you get after having something you put in the ground grow is the coolest feeling ever,” PBC Vice President and biology major Sabrina Moffly (junior) said.
Though they held their first meeting of the semester one week ago, the presidents of PBC have already been in active contact with Norco and Tampkins, crafting three detailed initial projects along with an extensive list of short and long-term goals.
“For our first project we want to plant tall vegetable seeds because they don’t need a lot of water, which is advantageous in this drought. Our second project is raised beds. Different salads, lettuce, turnips. They grow very quickly, so inmates can see directly what they’re creating. And then, finally, [we’d like to create] one bed for more plants that take longer to grow, like melons and tomatoes,” Lee said.
In order to make visits as productive as possible, members are required to become well-versed on particular plants and to practice gardening on campus.
“We’re going to set up [groups of] either twos or threes and they’re going to become the experts on tomatoes, say, and they’re going to teach the inmates everything they know about tomatoes and how to take care of tomatoes,” Moffly said.
Gardening on campus is also a way to engage members while the club presidents sort out the logistics of prison visits with the warden.
“It’s a bit frustrating that we’re off to sort of a slow start. There are a lot of bureaucratic and political hoops to jump through,” Moffly said.
Organized and careful planning are not enough to get past strict prison rules. It also requires creativity and patience.
“That’s the problem [with] working with a prison: thinking about all the details. Initially with our raised bed projects we wanted to bring all materials there and bring beds there, possibly have inmates help. But you can’t bring hammers and nails into a prison because they’re technically weapons,” Lee said. “You have to be very clever and think outside the box in order to bring these things in.”
The club hopes to make its first visit in two to three weeks, if all goes well. In the long-term, the presidents aim to create a gardening book, find a way to get the food they grow back into the prison’s kitchen and even branch out to different colleges in the state of California.
“Looks like we have a bright future. We really want to make an impact. We have high hopes. And our high hopes are going to stay high. It’s going to take some creative thinking and some working within the system, which is frustrating, but we’ll get there,” Moffley said.
To join Prison Beautification Club, email [email protected] The club meets on Thursdays in Johnson 106 at 5:00 p.m. All club meetings are open.