Alumna helps prison lifers brighten their space with an organic garden

Alumna Terry Meyer helped start a prison garden at the Rhode Island Department of Corrections. Photo courtesy of the Providence Journal

Drabness inspired Terry Meyer in late summer 2010.

As a volunteer Pilates instructor in one of the women’s prisons of the Rhode Island Department of Corrections, she would walk by the women’s minimum facility, where prisoners soon to be released were jabbing at trash with spiked sticks.

Meyer (BA ’75), then studying at the University of Rhode Island to be a master gardener, remembers “watching them in this barren landscape, which was just really crabgrass, thinking, ‘Why aren’t they tending to something pretty?’”

Looming above the women were the massive stone buildings of the Cranston, R.I., prison complex, along with high fences topped with concertina wire. Scattered about the barren area were a few picnic tables for children visiting their incarcerated mothers.

“There was nothing amusing to let your eye rest on,” Meyer says. “You had to really work to make your eye see something pleasant.”

That was easier for Meyer, given her aesthetic appreciation. She marveled at the turrets and the distinctive weather vanes crowning the stone cupolas.

“Strip the barbed wire away, you’d see an Ivy League campus,” Meyer says. “The beauty is there.”

Meyer, a digital cartographer, and two associates — Kate Lacouture, a landscape architect, and Vera Bowen, past president of the Rhode Island Federation of Garden Clubs — approached a prison official about volunteering to teach gardening classes and establishing a garden in the facility.

“We really had this program in mind for inmates who would be getting out in under two years,” Meyer says. They envisioned a program in which inmates could earn certificates for various areas of garden study that might make it slightly easier to obtain a job when paroled.

But the women’s buildings were being remodeled, Meyer says, and the women’s wardens didn’t think the timing was right for a new program.

The only warden interested in the proposed project was James Weeden, warden of men’s maximum security. Meyer says she and her colleagues initially were dumbfounded when told the garden would be in men’s max, where about 30 inmates are serving life without parole. Ten of those men were chosen for the gardening program.

“The warden wanted the lifers to be able to have something,” Meyer says. “He thought, ‘If you give these guys something they like, they may behave better because they don’t want it taken away.’ That may be the prison spin they put on it; I don’t object to that.”

The project began in February 2011 with classroom instruction and seed planting. The plants were sprouting indoors by March, followed by a memorable moment in April when a rototiller was rented.

“That’s when we first thought, ‘This is going to happen,’” Meyer says. “We were all screaming. We were just yelling in glee.”

The 6,000-square-foot organic garden produced a variety of vegetables, herbs and fruits, which enhanced the diet of the 450 inmates in men’s maximum. Meyer says it was “serendipitous” the way the garden came together, adding, “It feels good to be helping another person that most of society has just completely shut the door on.”




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