“Strip the barbed wire away, you'd see an Ivy League campus.”
Drabness inspired Terry Meyer in late summer 2010.
As a volunteer Pilates instructor in one of the women's prisons of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, she would walk by the women's minimum facility, where prisoners soon to be released were jabbing at trash with spiked sticks.
Meyer (BA '75), then studying at the University of Rhode Island to be a master gardener, remembers "watching them in this barren landscape, which was just really crabgrass, thinking, 'Why aren't they tending to something pretty?'"
Looming above the women were the massive stone buildings of the Cranston, R.I., prison complex, along with high fences topped with concertina wire. Scattered about the barren area were a few picnic tables for children visiting their incarcerated mothers.
"There was nothing amusing to let your eye rest on," Meyer says. "You had to really work to make your eye see something pleasant."
That was easier for Meyer, given her aesthetic appreciation. She marveled at the turrets and the distinctive weather vanes crowning the stone cupolas.
"Strip the barbed wire away, you'd see an Ivy League campus," Meyer says. "The beauty is there. It's Harry Potter's Temple of Doom."
Meyer, a digital cartographer, and two associates — Kate Lacouture, a landscape architect, and Vera Bowen, past president of the Rhode Island Federation of Garden Clubs — approached a prison official about volunteering to teach gardening classes and establishing a garden in the facility.
"We really had this program in mind for inmates who would be getting out in under two years," Meyer says, adding that the program was going to be modeled after one at Rikers Island. They envisioned a program where inmates could earn certificates for various areas of garden study that might make it slightly easier to obtain a job when paroled.
But the women's buildings were being remodeled, Meyer says and the women's wardens didn't think the timing was right for a new program.
The only warden interested in the proposed project was James Weeden, warden of men's maximum security. Meyer says she and her colleagues initially were dumbfounded when told the garden would be in men's max, where about 30 inmates are serving life without parole. Ten of those men were chosen for the gardening program.
"The warden wanted the lifers to be able to have something," Meyer says. "He thought, 'If you give these guys something they like, they may behave better because they don't want it taken away.' That may be the prison spin they put on it; I don't object to that."
The project began in February 2011 with classroom instruction and seed planting. The plants were sprouting indoors by March, followed by a memorable moment in April when a rototiller was rented.
"That's when we first thought, 'This is going to happen,'" Meyer says. "We were all screaming. We were just yelling in glee."
The 6,000-square-foot organic garden produced a variety of vegetables, herbs and fruits, which enhanced the diet of the 450 inmates in men's maximum. Meyer says it was "serendipitous" the way the garden came together, adding, "It feels good to be helping another person that most of society has just completely shut the door on."
Meyer arranged for a number of guest lecturers, who spoke to the men on everything from soil science, botany and conservation to landscape architecture and irrigation.
All the guest speakers want to return this year. They will not only teach 16 men but 16 female prisoners in women's minimum, where an area of 8,000 square feet will include a vegetable garden and a children's garden.
In the first week of April, Meyer and her colleagues had the women spray paint the ground, marking off beds for the rototiller. No rototiller is needed this year in men's maximum, where there was a lively discussion about cabbage. Some of the inmates are very opposed to it and prefer watermelon, which Meyer says will be tried again despite the inevitable assault from garden pests.
"We had a couple woodchucks in the yard," Meyer says, "and I asked one of the sharpshooters if he couldn't just take them out. He said no, because they have to account for their ammo."