Pictured above: Diane Williams, coordinator of Planting Justice’s volunteer and Holistic Re-Entry Program. Photo credit: Planting Justice.
America comprises 4% of the total world population. Yet the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s total incarcerated population, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. That means that American incarcerates one out of every five prisoners in the world. Many of these prisoners are habitual offenders and will periodically return to jail or prison for the remainder of their life.
A nursery in Oakland is trying to change that for as many local people as they can employ.
Planting Justice is a local Bay Area organization, founded in 2009, that establishes community gardens in neighborhoods around Oakland. The organization also operates its own permaculture nursery, and runs a local educational program that integrates social justice with art and agricultural knowledge.
Notably, 35% of the organization’s total staff are former prisoners, many with felony charges. Additionally, all of these formerly incarcerated employees make at least $19 an hour, which is more than $7 above the minimum wage in Oakland and almost $12 dollars more than the national minimum wage.
For Planting Justice, employing formerly incarcerated people is an intentional and ethically principled decision.
Holistic Re-Entry Program: How it Functions
The organization hires people who were recently in prison through their Holistic Re-Entry Program. The program has an impressive 0% recidivism rate meaning that every formerly imprisoned soul that has gone through the re-entry program at Planting Justice has not returned to prison or jail.
For comparison, California’s overall recidivism rate is at 44%. Any given former prisoner in California has a nearly 50-50 chance of being re-incarcerated, according to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The Holistic Re-Entry Program at Planting Justice teaches prisoners about agricultural work while they’re still in jail, and then offers them a job at the nursery when they get out. The majority of the re-entry program’s employee come from San Quentin, the closest prison to Oakland, or Maple street Jail in San Mateo County.
The organization also hires formerly incarcerated people that aren’t part of the re-entry program. They simply look beyond an individual’s past record and evaluate them according to what they can bring to the organization.
Planting Justice also takes referrals from the Insight Garden Program, another organization that works within prisoners. The Insight Garden Program’s mission is similar to Planting Justice’s mission; they offer in-prison courses on meditation, eco-therapy, and gardening, according to their website.
The Efficacy of the Program
By any metric, the re-entry program is successful. It supplies those former prisoners with a good wage and prevents them from going back to prison.
Given the cyclical nature of imprisonment in the US, that is a distinctive achievement. But, why does the re-entry program work as well as it does?
According to Diane Williams, coordinator of both the volunteer and re-entry programs at Planting Justice, that success is the result of a caring community:
“We care for each other and we try to look out for each other,” she tells Emerald.
“I’m always saying to people, what would you do if the person next to you looked like they were having trouble, [if they] looked like they were making bad decisions?” Williams asks, adding “we try to be aware like that but I will also have to say that the people that have come out are heading down good roads. They’re happy to be out.”
Williams herself is a big contributor to their low recidivism rate, although it’s something that she’s reluctant to admit over the phone.
Williams is a former social-worker of 40 years who now assists the volunteers, and those the re-entry program hires. As part of this, she helps participants re-obtain licenses, navigate their parole or probation, and generally anything else they need to integrate back into the outside world.
As she says, “if anything needs to happen in that area [of social work] then I do it. I make phone calls; I advocate for them and help them in whatever way I can.”
Sobrante Park, Oakland
From @Plating.Justice on Instagram.
Community is an integral facet of Planting Justice. Their two-acre permaculture nursery in Sobrante Park, Oakland illustrates the importance of community.
Almost all of the workers at Sobrante Park are from the community, even those from the re-entry program.
Williams explains that the significance of Sobrante Park lies in its generational history. “After World War II, Black people were redlined [in Oakland]. They were only allowed to move into the area of Sobrante Park. So that area is really intensely populated by people that have lived there since the end of World War II,” she says. “So, there’s generations there and they’re related to each other. And that’s unlike any other place. It’s almost like a small town over there now.”
From @Plating.Justice on Instagram.
“A Game Changer”
Gordon Limbrick is one of those employees from the community that the re-entry program hired. His family has been living in Sobrante Park for three generations — his five children are the fourth to live there.
For Limbrick, the Holistic Re-Entry Program’s location in Sobrante Parkgives him an opportunity that otherwise may not have materialized. A year ago, officials released Limbrick after he served eight months of a 16-month sentence in San Quentin. Now, he works in the shipping department at the Sobrante Park Nursery.
Before he served time at San Quentin, Limbrick actually broke ground for the Sobrante Park nursery in 2015, first as a volunteer, then as an employee. He was later incarcerated in 2019. After his release, Planting Justice employed him again in 2020 through their re-entry program. But, Limbrick’s sentence doesn’t affect the organization’s recidivism rate, since he wasn’t yet a part of the re-entry program.
The organization, he says, has been indispensable to him and others after they finish their sentences.
“Being there [at the nursery] just helps stay out of a lot of other things. I think it helps keep the confusion down. Instead of getting into trouble and things of that nature you’re down there at the nursery actually working, making a good wage,” he explains, “and learning something new about agriculture and food justice, things like that.”
Limbrick says that “when people go to jail, most of the time it’s because they’re hustling. They’re trying to get over the hump. That’s where people get into trouble,” he adds.“So, for Planting Justice to be in that location, in this city, and giving people these opportunities who have nothing to do with agriculture at all. I mean it’s really just a game changer.”
Incarceration in the U.S.: A Systemic Failure
Williams and Limbrick both agree that mass incarceration and the prison-industrial-complex are problems. They also feel that racism is a major issue within these systems.
“People of color and poor people are not being treated equally,” says Williams, the re-entry program’s coordinator. “We shouldn’t have our jails filled up with Black and Brown people. It just shouldn’t be like that.”
Planting Justice’s re-entry program is an attempt to rectify that. Furthermore, the organization gives community members the chance to avoid re-incarceration.
Limbrick feels the criminal justice system just doesn’t offer what Planting Justice does.
“The prison system is called the Department of Corrections. But correcting is the farthest thing from what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re stockpiling people in small spaces and you’re just sitting there. There’s no job training, there’s no situation where they set you on the path to be released and be successful.”