Inside the Garden Walls
08/03/2010
Urbanite - Baltimore

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Constant gardener: Willie Isaac waters the garden on a hot June day. Inmates say working in the garden nets them much more than the 90-cents-a-day wage: hope, peace of mind, and a sense of purpose.

It's a blisteringly hot June morning when Willie Isaac escapes from prison. The lean 54-year-old, sporting a head of bundled dreadlocks and a gray, prison-issue jumpsuit, has spent more than three decades behind bars. In full view of both guards and fellow inmates milling about the exercise yard within the hoary Metropolitan Transition Center in East Baltimore, Isaac flees beyond the stout walls and cruel coils of concertina wire. He does it most every day.

Isaac's freedom is purely of a spiritual nature, however, fostered by a row of raised garden beds he's learned to care for. He wields a red rubber garden hose, sweeping a watering nozzle gently across a bed of impatiens and hosta. "This takes me away from here to the other side of life," Isaac says, mopping a glistening brow. "There's nothing more beautiful than to see life continuing, growing. In here you can't hear a baby cry. The next best thing is to see a flower bloom."

Fertile ground: The garden was first planted with flowers but now also grows such vegetables as squash, eggplants, and tomatoes.

That a garden grows inside this grim, sprawling correctional facility, parts of which date back nearly two centuries, is due in part to the TKF Foundation, an Annapolis organization that issues grants for the creation and maintenance of gardens across the state. Each of these "sacred places," as the foundation calls them, is designed to be a "temporary sanctuary" that provides solace and encourages reflection. While most are at schools, churches, or hospitals, two of these gardens are inside prison wallsóhere in Baltimore and at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberlandówith a third under development at the sprawling Jessup Correctional Institution.

The garden where Isaac toils has been fueled by $40,000 in grants since 2001 and sits inside a part of the penitentiary complex called the Metropolitan Transition Center, where convicts within eighteen months of their release dates do their final time before returning to society. (See "Learning the Hard Way," Sept. '09 Urbanite.) "Most people in prison are eventually getting out," says the foundation's executive director, Mary Wyatt. "If they are given the idea that they are worth nothing and are hopeless human beings, isn't that how they are going behave when they come out? Let's give them something beautiful to send them back home to their neighborhoods on a positive note."

Room for relfection: The small garden at the Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore City provides a temporary sanctuary for inmates.

Overseeing the inmates as they oversee the garden is Maurice Smith, a jovial correctional officer who retired in 2008 only to be coaxed back into uniform on a contractual basis barely eighteen months later, largely so he could continue to look after this prison-yard patch of green. "I'm an avid gardener," Smith says. "I know when you walk outside and see flowers blooming it changes your attitude about your life. People think I'm crazy when I say that, but it's true."

The TKF Foundation's prison garden at the Western Correctional Institution is an elaborate, circular affair with a gurgling fountain at its center. But here, there wasn't much room within these ancient walls to design anything quite so ambitious. The garden's raised beds simply surround the basketball court and weight lifting area. A wooden bench at its center serves as a meditation spot.

The yard was devoid of any greenery at the start, and inmate labor as much as anything fueled its rebirth. Smith says when they got 4 tons of free mulch from the highway administration, dozens of inmates turned out to help distribute it. "They loved having something to do," he says. "Most are just very curious about the garden."

Originally just flowers, including tulips for springtime color, the garden now holds vegetables, including squash, okra, collards, tomatoes, and eggplants. Legal issues thwarted the initial plan to hand the garden's harvest over to a nearby soup kitchen, so prison staff enjoy the bounty now. "The inmates will sneak and eat a tomato now and then, and I don't mind," Smith says. One plucky inmate found a way to successfully microwave okra with ramen noodles.

Inmates earn 90 cents a day for tending the garden, but on this steamy morning all of the incarcerated gardeners in their matching jumpsuits say they get much more from the experience: "peace of mind," "calmness," "purpose," "hope."

Telling a reporter want he wants to hear? Maybe. But actions speak louder than words, in prison and everywhere else. "I can tell you," Smith says, "the garden is one area we never have problems with drugs, fighting, or contraband."

óBrennen Jensen is Urbanite's Home/Design online editor.