The hatching of a plot to make
Prisons are not what they were. Long gone is the Victorian style bang ‘em up culture. These days the emphasis is less on punishment, more on rehabilitation. Small wonder, then, that the prison garden has taken off.
After all, if ever there was an instrument of grace, it is gardening. It forces us to slow down, reflect on the world and teaches patience.
The gardens at Dartmoor prison are the exemplar of a successful horticultural rehabilitation project. In 2006, prison officer Ivan Judd had an idea to transform the disused exercise yards of the old punishment unit into vegetable gardens to be tended by inmates in the resettlement wing. Judd approached Business in the Community, who put in him in touch with the Eden Project. Jane Knight, landscape architect at Eden, was one of the first on board.
She recalls an early visit to see the site. “The yards were completely tarmacked, grey, and surrounded by granite. They were really grim.” Knight set to work designing areas of planting that would inspire. Some of her designs proved to be more inspirational than others. Her layout for a multi-season garden unintentionally took on a risqué edge. “I remember these two circular areas of lawn that appeared rather provocative when looked down upon from the prison wing above,” she giggles. Design aside, planning what plants would go where was pretty straightforward; governed by areas of shade and shadow and cool and warm areas within the walls.
More complicated were the practical aspects of the project. “Getting things into prisons is not easy,” says Knight. At first progress was painfully slow. Tools needed to be approved. Outdoor clothes had to be ordered.
Gravel, wood, soil and materials had to be barrowed in through a small guarded gate at the end of the gardens. But, by 2007, a series of raised beds had been built, tarmac had been replaced by gravel, and trellis had been fixed to the wall. Knight has nothing but praise for the team at Dartmoor. “One of the great things we found we called ‘buried treasure’. Nearly all of the guys in the resettlement unit bought some kind of skill to the project. One of the inmates had run a market garden so he had a lot of knowledge; there were lots of carpentry skills too. We’d suggest cold frames for the walls and before you knew it they’d produce the most beautiful cold frames. There was clearly so much pride in what they were doing. Having worked in other prisons since, I now realise that we were incredibly lucky with our first experience at Dartmoor. I’ve since found that you can’t impose these things.”
Seven years on and the gardens are now an established part of the resettlement unit. It is hard to imagine them in their former guise as solitary pens for punishing exercise. Now filled with flowers, colour and birdsong, the gardens are quick to enchant, nestled inside the prison’s huge bleak granite walls. In one yard, neat rows of raised beds overflow with salad leaves, cabbages, brassicas, beetroot and broccoli. In another, evergreen climbers and fruit trees spill from the walls and a wigwam of canes draws the eye upwards to barred prison windows.
Alongside is a healing garden containing a cherry tree, flowering shrubs, daylilies and dwarf conifers; at its centre is a sunken pond surrounded by flag iris and crocosmia. Water trickles from its fountain and a blackbird takes flight from atop a pair of ornamental garden boots.
“An inmate came up with the idea and design for the pond,” says prison officer John Northam. “But he left, and only half-finished it, so another lad took over.” A pause. “It was working well till yesterday – when the pump broke.”
The turnover of gardeners is high. Projects started by one will often be completed by another. Such is the nature of the resettlement unit, where 45 inmates stay for up two years, preparing to return to society. While on the wing the prisoners attend