Planting the Seeds (2002-2013)
As Beth Waitkus — a life-long nature lover, environmentalist, and social justice activist — was exploring ways to regain her faith in humanity after 9/11, she had the opportunity to tour and potentially volunteer at San Quentin State Prison. After visiting the prison’s reentry yard, she was asked if she would grow a garden there. It was the question that changed everything.
Beth’s first years at Insight Garden Program (initially a project of the Insight Prison Project were focused on “planting seeds of change” — organizing weekly classes focused on environmental awareness and gardening skills, building stakeholder relationships in the prison to plan and install a flower garden on H-Unit, as well as doing thesis research on the Impact of a Garden Program on the Social Climate and Physical Environment of a Prison Yard at San Quentin State Prison.
After multiple meetings with prison staff and leadership, planning with volunteers, and a week-long installation process, the first flower garden was built a year later during Winter Solstice in December 2003. The garden offered IGP’s participants real hope and opportunity for change, shifting hearts and minds, as well as prison culture.
Through the following years, as the program deepened and volunteer support expanded, IGP was able to navigate the complexities of California’s criminal justice system through multi-stakeholder collaborations and relationship-building with community members, prison staff and leadership, IGP participants, and people who had returned home. These connections were key to IGP’s initial growth and reputation.
As seeds of change were planted from the ground up, it became evident that the simple act of connecting people to “self, community and the natural world” made a significant impact. Our participants’ rate of return to prison within three years was 10% compared to the state’s 65%. People started to notice. Millions of taxpayer dollars were saved through reduced costs of incarceration (people leaving prison and not returning); but most importantly, people were successfully reintegrating to their communities and families.
To expand the possibilities for others on the same yard, in 2010 and 2012, IGP co-sponsored two Green Career Fairs with the California Reentry Program for more than 600 men on H-Unit. IGP also set up a pilot reentry partnership with Planting Justice and Rubicon Programs to provide participants returning home with Rubicon’s extensive career and support services and then job opportunities at Planting Justice. It became obvious that collaborations and networks between CBOs would be critical to weaving a web of support for people leaving prison.
IGP’s First Vegetable Garden
In addition to the flower garden, Beth and IGP volunteers — including Planting Justice — went through a 7-year approval process to build IGP’s first vegetable garden which was finally installed in November, 2013. PJ also offered employment opportunities, including landscaping jobs, to many of IGP’s graduates.
Between 2011-13, IGP began to receive national accolades. Beth was featured in the book EcoAmazons: 20 Women Who are Transforming the World; in a segment on ABC World News with DIane Sawyer; and received a community service award. The recognition raised the program’s visibility far beyond the prison walls and led to significant funding in 2013 that would allow the program to deepen and expand. After more than a decade of being fiscally sponsored, in 2014, IGP filed for non-profit status and began plans for curriculum redesign and replication in California and beyond.
2014-Current (Ground and Grow)
In 2014, to build a sustainable organization and replicable program, Beth began hiring core staff to support that expansion, and Program Managers and facilitators staff to run programs in prisons across California and beyond.
As the volunteer program shifted from one prison to its first expansion site at California State Prison – Solano, IGP focused on redesigning the curriculum for replication, developing a train-the-trainer program, and providing ongoing technical assistance to Program Managers across the state. Since 2014, the program has expanded from one to 13 prisons in California, Indiana, and Ohio, including those serving women, men, youth, and people with mental health issues and disabilities. In line with the initial reentry pilot project, IGP now has a robust reentry program – in collaboration with many other CBOs – that supports people leaving prison with the resources and support they need for success.
Advocating for change in the California prison system also became a priority. Beth and IGP staff continued to develop relationships with California legislators to generate awareness of the need for more evidence and community-based programming throughout the state prison system. This resulted in IGP co-founding the Transformative In-Prison Work Group with 3 other CBOS to create a diverse, state-wide movement that has since advocated for legislative funding of community-based, in-prison programs.
TPW has now grown into a 57-member, self-managed organization that generates $5+ million of state funding annually from the CDCR. The leadership team and TPW’s committees are made up of people who are formerly incarcerated and/or systems impacted – putting their lived experience front and center of conversations about what needs to change in the California prison system and how to better serve those living inside.
Along with an experiential and eco-based curriculum, IGP also innovates new projects that help to deepen its mission and commitment to the intersection of environmental, criminal, and social justice. These have included a reentry program that brought together formerly incarcerated participants to connect around environmental issues, and the first-ever “Green Team” in a California state prison that allowed for collaboration across stakeholder groups to find ways to reduce the environmental footprint at California State Prison – Solano.
Since March 2020, when IGP shut down programming inside prisons because of COVID-19, the organization immediately pivoted and increased support to meet the critical reentry needs of people returning home during a pandemic. Those inside continue to receive curriculum packets to support their ongoing learning and connection to the outside world.
Making Way for New Leadership
In July 2020, after 18 years, Beth stepped aside to make way for new leadership. As she mentioned in her transition statement, “IGP is at a historical inflection point. We have the biggest window of opportunity ever to advocate for change in IGP and beyond. As our seeds have grown and flourished, we offer so much more than we did in the early days. This opens a door for new leadership to guide the organization to greater depth in its work, culture, and community. My heart is full and my faith in the goodness of people and their capacity for change has been proven time and time again.”