There’s a garden in Chowchilla off of Road 22 that’s surrounded by miles of farmland. Only women tend to this garden. There are wildflowers, succulents, lavender, thyme, and perennials to name a few.
Sol Mercado helped build and design it a year and a half ago.
“We had mulch in our eyes, we had dirt. It was really hot, but we still pushed through and we got it done,” the 33-year-old says. “We were all working as a team and it was really nice.”
Mercado and a group of about two dozen women garden every Friday afternoon to escape the monotony of the concrete walls and barbed wire where they reside. Mercado has lived in one of the largest women's prisons in the country for almost 15 years, the Central California Women’s Facility, or CCWF.
The garden exists because of the Insight Garden Program, a nonprofit that aims to connect people in prison with nature, the community, and themselves. Once a week women garden, meditate, and take a two-hour class where they learn about the environment, and work on personal development and career preparation for when they’re released.
“Doing activities like this I’ve learned a lot about myself and I challenged myself to do things I’ve never done before,” Mercado says. “Nobody ever told me, ‘Hey you can do this. You got this.’ I never had any encouragement out there. It was always encouragement to do the bad things.”
A day after her nineteenth birthday, Mercado says she shot and killed a rival gang member. She was sentenced to 31 years, but will get a parole hearing by 2021.
“There’s no justification, no excuse for what I did,” she says. “I can’t blame it on him, I can’t blame it on nobody. I made a lot of bad choices and at that moment I didn’t care about nobody or myself.”
Mercado says her parents split when she was 3 years old. She endured sexual and domestic abuse and joined a gang when she was 12. She turned to the streets as a way to cope, or what she refers to as a “path of destruction.”
But in prison she’s trying to honor the life she took, she says. Aside from gardening, Mercado speaks to at-risk youth about her experiences and trains service dogs.
“That has brought a purpose to my life,” Mercado says. “It really has changed the person that I was out there on the streets because I know if I would of still been out there I would've never made it.”
The Insight Garden Program is in nine other California prisons, says Executive Director Beth Waitkus. She says the program also provides resources for people once they’re released so they have support on the outside.
“We want to be there for them,” Waitkus says. “I think that the majority of the people we work with don’t come back (to prison or jail) and they become productive leaders in their communities and that’s what we’re striving for.”
The likelihood is high that people who are incarcerated will end up in jail or prison again. Insight Garden tries to change that. Over an 8 year period, Waitkus says the program followed 118 people who were released from San Quentin, where the program started. She says only 11 returned to prison or jail within three years.
The warden at CCWF, Janel Espinoza, says the garden gives women a sense of worth and has brought peace to the prison.
“I tell them use prison as a platform to transform your life," Espinoza says.
Rehab programs like Insight Garden can help reduce recidivism, according to the RAND Corporation, a research organization focused on public policy. But, they must take into account the types of issues those who are incarcerated face, like substance abuse, antisocial personality or temperament, and family stressors. Not all rehab programs do that.
“Also keep in mind that many programs help offenders from being idle, so they can help with prison order,” RAND officials say in an email. “That doesn't necessarily mean, though, that they reduce recidivism.”
For Norma Sanchez, it was the credits she would accumulate to shave time off her prison sentence that inspired her to join the Insight Garden Program. But it started to mean more than that.
“My daughter is learning about plants in school,” Sanchez says in Spanish. “So for me it’s something that connects us regardless of the distance.”
Sanchez says they swap stories about how their plants are growing and what they look like. It’s something that helps her in prison, and to have a relationship with her daughter. Sanchez says she's in prison for attempted murder. She’s been here for seven years and has six more to go.
Deena Velasquez was released from CCWF in December after 33 years and now lives in Fresno. Every day she’s out walking around downtown going on “adventures.”
She sits in a gazebo at the entrance to Community Regional Medical Center and talks about how many birds there are and all the cars whizzing by. Velasquez says she comes here sometimes to meditate and reflect.
“It’s a big world,” she says. “A lot of things are moving fast. At the same time it’s very exciting. But it’s very important for me to take time to ground myself.”
Velasquez was in prison for second-degree murder. She was able to get released early because the man she helped kill sexually assaulted her. On her first day out, she says she was “shocked but in the same breath, very grateful.”
She has a second chance to live her life differently with what she learned in prison, Velasquez says. She learned new ways of thinking, new habits, and how to love herself. Insight Garden helped foster that, she says.
“During that time they (Insight Garden) brought freedom to me,” she says. “They brought freedom to me because now I had access to different types of plants that were out here in the real world. It brought me a piece of home.”
Even before the program arrived at CCWF, Velasquez says she was already gardening. She would keep tomato or watermelon seeds and plant them using an old can as a shovel to dig.
Insight Garden connected her with Circle of Support and Accountability, a nonprofit that helps adults reintegrate into society. On her 111th day out of prison, Velasquez says she passed her driver's test.
A sociology professor at the University of California, Merced volunteers for Insight Garden at CCWF along with some graduate students. Professor Zulema Valdez says part of the university's mission is to give back to the San Joaquin Valley, which includes prison populations.
“When we meet women here that are so appreciative of having a place where we can go and get out of what seems like a really institutionalized place and just hang out in the garden, it’s really familiar to everyone here,” Valdez says. “This is something we can all share, and it starts getting you out of the labels.”
Valdez is aware that some women at CCWF have committed violent crimes, but she says “we've all made bad decisions” and many people forget that.
“A lot of these women, it’s decisions that they made that were consequences of partners that they loved, family members that they were supporting,” Valdez says.
Many of these women come from more vulnerable populations, Valdez says, and that can lead to all kinds of consequences. Various women in the CCWF garden talk about the broken homes and drug addictions they tried to escape. They spoke about growing up as young teenagers and having no one else but their significant other, who was also their abuser.
“It’s that whole idea where any one of these women could have been us in just a shift in circumstances,” Valdez says. “If you come into a prison and do volunteer work, you find out right away that there’s very little difference between you and them.”
Sanchez says gardening is a privilege and the way her life was going, she never would have had the chance to learn about plants on the outside. But now, she says, when she gets out she’s going to start her own garden.