Prison Gardens

“What makes a prison landscape therapeutic?” Guest post by Amy Lindemuth

Garden at Rikers Island. Photo by Hilda Krus

Garden at Rikers Island. Photo by Hilda Krus

Last week, we published an article by guest blogger Amy Lindemuth, “Can prison landscapes be secure, restorative, and ecologically sustainable?” This was the first of two articles, and this week we give you the second:

What makes a prison landscape therapeutic? by Amy Lindemuth

In my last post, I discussed the possibility that the accepted cultural norm for prison and jail landscapes of ubiquitous mown lawn, chain link, blank walls, and wire could be shifted to include greater plant diversity and visual complexity. From our perspective as advocates of healthy, healing places, the primary goal of such an effort would be to increase the potential for these spaces to provide therapeutic benefits for users and improve the ecological health of the site. Yet, I’ve begun to ask myself the question, within the context of corrections complexes, what makes an open space “therapeutic” or “restorative”? In describing a new sustainable, therapeutic garden at the VA Puget Sound Fisher House in Seattle, local landscape architect Jan Satterthwaite ( made this distinction: “What makes the therapeutic garden at a hospital special involves an understanding of what might help ‘transport’ people away from the medical process or the medical center.” See this ASLA Healthcare and Therapeutic Design Newsletter for the full article.

In the garden at Rikers Island. Photo by Hilda Krus

The GreenHouse Project gardens at Rikers Island Jails are located in a secured area. Students in the program have been screened and are considered to be a low security risk. Photo by Hilda Krus

I think this is true for gardens in prisons and jails, but corrections settings also have a unique set of circumstances and constraints compared to hospitals. As I’ve discussed, differing security levels within the same facility determine the level of landscape complexity that can occur in different open spaces. Usually these open spaces are so stark and bleak that I find myself wondering whether any kind of interesting landscape elements, even annual borders, offer some healthful benefits. Certainly elements this simple cannot generate the deep, lasting changes discussed in the research literature on therapeutic landscapes. Yet, in an environment where the bar for landscapes is despairingly low, these simple gestures may offer a symbol of normalcy that helps reduce someone’s stress in that instant or set a helpful tone for the day.

Vegetable garden at Rikers Island. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

Vegetable garden at Rikers Island. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

Open spaces in prisons and jails can and do range from the simple to the complex. I think one of the responsibilities of designers and corrections administrators is to push for these landscapes to do more and serve multiple functions, from addressing stormwater onsite and improving habitat function to helping reduce stress among officers and inmates.  I believe this approach can be accomplished without compromising overall security.  Rather than planting lawn, what if high security areas had plants 24” or less in height which were physically inaccessible to inmates?  These low height landscapes could provide better functionality in terms of reducing irrigation and maintenance requirements and addressing stormwater than is possible with mown lawn. The visual relief provided by these areas could also offer more to staff and inmates in terms of normalizing the work and living environment. Our mental image of what prison landscapes look like needs to expand to include typologies that address multiple site functions, site functionality, and staff and inmate health while meeting the requirements of the various security zones within the site.

Garden and greenhouse at Rikers Island. Photo by Hilda Krus

Garden and greenhouse at Rikers Island. Photo by Hilda Krus

Amy Lindemuth is the author of “Beyond the Bars: Landscapes for Health and Healing in Corrections,” a chapter in the forthcoming Greening in the Red Zone: Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening edited by Keith G. Tidball and Marianne E. Krasny. She practices in Seattle, WA. For Amy’s full bio, please see her previous post, “Can prison landscapes be secure, restorative, and ecologically sustainable?

Schoolyards should have trees and other living things

Andrew H. Wilson Charter School courtyard, New Orleans, LA. Image courtesy of Pavestone Company.

Andrew H. Wilson Charter School courtyard, New Orleans, LA. Image courtesy of Pavestone Company.

Ironically, as I was preparing to post Amy Lindemuth’s piece on landscapes in prisons last week, I came across an article in Landscape Architect and Specifier News that had a picture of what looks like a rather bleak prison courtyard with no trees or other vegetation, just a two-toned paving grid. ‘How sad,’ I thought, ‘We still have such a long way to go.’  And then I realized that the people in the photo weren’t prisoners, they were children! Children at an elementary school in New Orleans, Louisiana. So here’s my Letter to the Editor (which has since been published in the February 2011 issue, Vol. 27, No. 02, p. 14).  As I say at the end of the letter, to me this is an example of failure, not success. Fingers crossed that they print it, and fingers crossed that this type of design is a dying breed.

Letter to the Landscape Architect and Specifier News Editor regarding “Another Brick in the Wall.”

When I first saw the feature image for Bruce Soileau’s article on the new Andrew H. Wilson Charter School courtyard (“Another Brick in the Wall”), I thought I was seeing a prison courtyard, and my heart sank at the huge expanse of paving with no plant material or any other kind of shade in sight.  Even inmates deserve some relief from paving, no matter how “interesting” the pattern (and the visual interest of the two-tone pattern here is debatable). When I realized I was looking at a newly designed courtyard for an elementary school, my sadness turned to anger. When a school gets a chunk of disaster recovery money, this is the best they can do? I understand that the school, not the designers, set the program. They wanted their large interior courtyard to be paved “entirely except for four planters that were installed” (of which there are no pictures in the article). What a shame. What an incredible missed opportunity to do something truly green and sustainable – for the planet, and for the children and teachers at this school.

This is New Orleans. How many months of the year will this courtyard be unusable due to extreme heat, glare and danger of sunburn? Even if no other plant material had been used, trees in this courtyard would have provided much-needed shade for people using the courtyard as well as for the building. Trees, in addition to providing green life, reduce the heat island effect significantly.

I wish someone had given the school administrators and the architects and landscape architects (if there were any) Sharon Danks’ new book Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation and Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods before the design program was established. And I wish that someone had pointed them to the Children & Nature Network ( and the Therapeutic Landscapes Network ( for a stack of research on how important access to nature is for people’s health and well-being, and especially for children’s mental, physical and emotional development.

A schoolyard in Europe. Photo by Sharon Danks,

The Coombes School in England. Photo by Sharon Danks.

Sure, an interesting permeable paving pattern is preferable to asphalt, but come on. Really? A two-tone checkerboard pattern? Is that truly the best that the designers could come up with? And was there no way to convince the school to reach beyond an all-paved program? Children – all people, really, but especially children – need stimulation. They need access to nature. They need shade! To me, this schoolyard landscape is an example of failure, not success. Unfortunately, it’s the students, teachers and staff who will have to make do with it.

Addendum: I received this comment on February 2nd, which gives hope that things are not quite as bleak as they seem. I’m grateful to the person who commented, and I’m reprinting it in the body of the text here because it’s an important piece of the puzzle:
I was personally involved in the project pictured and have some background about the image in the magazine. It is the result of marketing personnel jumping the gun to produce an marketing campaign based on their products. The article was published about a particular brick used in the courtyard of this New Orleans school. The landscape plan has been designed and is waiting funding. In the upper right there is one of four large planters in the courtyard. Adjacent to the courtyard there is a grassed playyard with large live oak trees. There was even an educational wetlands designed for this area, but was postponed due to funding. There are also 4 additional grass playyards that are all nestled under 100 year oak trees. None of these are pictured because they did not include bricks which were being marketed. This is the result of taking an image of one area of an entire project. With only seeing the one image it is a terrible bleak place, but hopefully after funding it will be as nice as the rest of the playyards. Just wanted to let you all know that there is more to the picture. Thanks.

Can prison landscapes be secure, restorative, and ecologically sustainable? Guest post by Amy Lindemuth

A typical prison landscape in Washington State. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

A typical prison landscape in Washington State. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

Today’s guest post is by Amy Lindemuth, author of “Beyond the Bars: Landscapes for Health and Healing in Corrections,” a chapter in the forthcoming Greening in the Red Zone: Disaster, Resilience and Community Greening edited by Keith G. Tidball and Marianne E. Krasny.

Amy became interested in corrections after taking a series of undergraduate courses in medical anthropology at the University of Washington that focused on the culture of institutions and cultural constructions of health and mental illness. As a graduate student in landscape architecture, her interest in therapeutic landscapes and corrections led to a thesis project at the Monroe Correctional Complex in Monroe, Washington, designing a large courtyard garden for staff and inmates within a unit for mentally ill offenders. She also worked as a volunteer on the design and construction of a garden for mothers and their children at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in New York. These experiences gave insight into the concerns and perceptions of custody staff regarding green spaces in their facilities, and furthered her understanding of the cultural and psychological constraints unique to the field of corrections. Amy is interested in creating healthy, sustainable spaces that strengthen the social and ecological fabric of our communities. She practices in Seattle, WA. This is the first of two guest blog posts on the subject; we will publish the second post next week.

Can Prison Landscapes be Secure, Restorative, and Ecologically Sustainable? by Amy Lindemuth

Over the past several years, I’ve written articles [see the Therapeutic Landscapes Network’s References and Gardens in Prisons pages] about the need for landscapes in correctional facilities that provide therapeutic benefits or a restorative moment for corrections staff and inmates. For the most part, the views surrounding prisons and jails in the United States are bleak expanses of lawn, chain link security fences, walls and concertina wire, like the image above. Occasionally the view is broken by perennials planted near an administrative office or a vegetable garden in a secured area. This landscape typology evolved from the real need to keep staff, inmates, and the public safe from harm. Officer sight lines from station posts, towers, and other patrol locations throughout the grounds are unimpeded, allowing for quick identification of, and reaction to, disturbances or illicit behavior.

Greenhouse butterfly and bird garden, Rikers Island. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

Butterfly and bird garden, Rikers Island. Photo by Amy Lindemuth

There are exceptions. Some facilities, such as Rikers Island Jails in New York (left image), allow students in their horticulture programs to beautify the grounds with a diverse arrangement and selection of plants that go beyond your typical geraniums lining an entry walk [for more exceptions, see the TLN’s Gardens in Prisons page]. Grounds at other facilities that were historically purposed for a use other than corrections may, in some areas, possess qualities similar to an academic campus, such as mature trees under planted with shrubs and lawn. The fact that these other landscape typologies exist in the American corrections system, including maximum security prisons, suggests that there are opportunities to include a range of landscape types within our prisons and jails.


This Friday! Horticultural Society of NY presents Horticultural Therapy Partnership Forum, Food 4 Thought

Image courtesy of HSNY

This Friday, 3/12, the Horticultural Society of New York presents its 4th Annual Horticultural Therapy Partnership Forum, “Food 4 Thought.” What a great line-up! I’m so excited to get to meet and hear from all of these amazing people. Click HERE to link to the HSNY info and registration page.

Morning topics and speakers are:

  • “Horticultural Therapy at the Rikers Island,” with Hilda Krus, HTR, Director of GreenHouse, HSNY
  • “Horticultural Therapy for People Living with HIV/AIDS,” with Liza Watkins of Bailey Holt House and Sandra Power of the Horticultural Therapy Institute

An afternoon panel will be moderated by Ronnit Bendavid-Val, Director of Citywide Horticulture, NYC Dept. of Parks & Recreation. Panelist topics and presenters include:

  • “Urban Farming, Farm Stands, & Markets,” with Jane Hodge, City Farms Manager, Just Food and Rev. Robert Jackson, Co-founder of Brooklyn Rescue Mission
  • “Horticulture Across Generations,” with Arthur Sheppard, Goddard Riverside
  • “Partnering Medical & Social Research,” with Anne Wiesen, Co-founder & Executive Director of Meristem and Naomi Sachs, Founder & Director of the Therapeutic Landscapes Network
  • “Physical Therapy and Gardening,” with Karen Washington, Physical Therapist, President of NYC Community Gardens Coalition, and Co-founder of La Familia Verde Gardens Coalition.

Anne Wiesen, my co-presenter, is also the co-editor of the book Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-Being through Urban Landscapes,” which you can read a review of on this blog post.

This forum is one of several great upcoming events. I haven’t had the chance to blog about each and every one, so please visit the “Upcoming Events” area (right-hand column, about half-way down) to see what’s going on in your area (geographically or professionally). And as always, if you have events that you want others to know about, contact the TLN and we’ll get it posted.

Image courtesy of HSNY

“Defiant Gardens” and Other Resources for Veterans

Image courtesy of Gardening Leave

For this post, on Veterans Day in the United States, I’d like to share some information about resources specifically for veterans.

While many veterans returning home from war have to deal with physical trauma, almost all suffer from emotional trauma and strain. On the extreme end is posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which can be debilitating for not just the individual veterans but for their entire family and community. More and more research has been coming out about gardening, exposure to nature in a safe setting, and horticultural therapy as effective tools for fighting PTSD and other stress-related problems.

Here are some resources about work that is being done around this issue:
Gardening Leave ( is a UK charity, founded by Anna Baker Cresswell, for ex-Servicemen and women with PTSD and other mental health troubles. The goal is to combat stress through horticultural therapy activities – growing fruit and vegetables – in a walled garden setting, where people feel safe and protected. The program has been developed in accordance with plans by Combat Stress (Ex-Services Mental Welfare Society).

The Acer Institute, founded and directed by P. Annie Kirk, teamed up with the ASLA Healthcare and Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network in 2005 to host a day-long conference, “Therapeutic Garden Design and Veterans Affairs: Preparing for Future Needs” at the Miami Veterans Affairs Medical Center. You can download most of the presentations, see photos and movies, and even request the CD, on which all of the information is compiled, from Acer’s website. Since that conference, Annie has been creating a list of therapeutic (healing) gardens at VA Facilities. You can access this list from Acer website’s VA healthcare page (you just have to fill out a short form first). You can also add to the list, helping Acer to keep building this knowledge base.

Another great resource is the website Defiant Gardens, which came from Kenneth Helphand‘s book by the same name. I am so impressed with Helphand’s scholarship, and my admiration goes beyond his consistently good research and writing. In this case, it’s truly inspiring.

What are “defiant gardens?” They are, in the words of the author, “…gardens created in extreme or difficult environmental, social, political, economic, or cultural conditions. These gardens represent adaptation to challenging circumstances, but they can also be viewed from other dimensions as sites of assertion and affirmation.” Helphand’s book focuses on “Trench Gardens” on the Western Front in WWI, “Ghetto Gardens” in Nazi Europe, “Barbed-Wire Gardens” created by allied prisoners of war and civilian internees in Europe and Asia in the World Wars, gardens in Japanese internment camps in the United States during WWII, and gardens following WWII.

What I appreciate most about the website is that it includes information from the book, but also keeps going from there, encompassing prison gardens, community gardens, and gardens in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Guantanamo. The most recent post is the text from a New York Times article on gardens in Afghanistan.
And here’s another really nice post by my fellow landscape architecture and blogger colleague Rochelle Greayer: “I Gardened for My Life: The Defiant Gardens of POWs on Veterans Day.” Thanks for the mention, Rochelle. Always happy to inspire:)
And finally, here’s a link from the Farmer-Veteran Coalition (Farmers helping veterans, veterans helping farmers”) to a post about Nadia McAffrey, a Gold Star Mother (she lost her son in the Iraq war) who founded Veterans Village “to provide compassionate healing and living environments for returning veterans damaged by their war experience.” They are expanding to sites in Minnesota and New York, “where land is available for farming and gardening – important components for both the healing and the livelihood for the communities.” Thanks so much to Sharon for these links!

Book Review: Open Spaces Sacred Places

The Therapeutic Landscapes Resource Center takes a broad view of therapeutic landscapes, or what we call Landscapes for Health.™ According to our definition, any outdoor space that fosters health and wellness is a Landscape for Health. While we tend to focus more on healthcare design, we see great value in other spaces that put people in contact with nature: Community gardens, sensory gardens, public parks, nature preserves, gardens in prisons, and even indoor gardens and atria. It’s not often that you find a book that covers this breadth of examples, and that’s because there aren’t many organizations out there devoted to supporting this breadth of Landscapes for Health.

Enter the TKF Foundation (, founded in 1996 by Tom and Kitty Stoner. TKF’s mission is “to provide the opportunity for a deeper human experience by supporting the creation of public greenspace that offers a temporary place of sanctuary, encourages reflection, provides solace, and engenders peace.” The T and K stand for Tom and Kitty, and the F stands for “Firesouls,™” leaders and individuals “who have the spark of hope and energy to find a way…to foster the creation of places that can become sacred and embedded in nature.” TKF has worked hand in hand with these Firesouls, often in ongoing relationships that go far beyond just donating funds, to build these open spaces and sacred places (see for more on this).

In the past twelve years, TKF has funded more than 120 projects in and around the Maryland/Washington D.C. area, where the Stoners are based. Twelve of these projects are lovingly described, in words, photographs, and drawings, in the new book Open Spaces, Sacred Places (2008), written by Tom Stoner and Carolyn Rapp. These include nature preserves, vacant lots transformed into community gardens, an arboretum, gardens in healthcare facilities, a prison garden, and even a tree-planting project. 

In each of the gardens, a bench made from recycled pickle barrel wood (originally designed by Chuck Foster and Paul Willey and now created by the inmates at Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD) offers a place for people to sit, reflect, and connect to nature and each other. A yellow journal and pencil are tucked into a built-in pocket beneath each bench, and Open Spaces Sacred Places is filled with journal entries from people of all ages and walks of life who have been touched by the place they are visiting. Here are three examples: “I give thanks to whatever spirits whispered in my ear today and gently led me through the gate of this very special garden. I will try to carry its energy in my heart and consciousness when I am outside the walls,” and “My daddy moved his finger today,” and “Places like this make me feel like everything will be OK.”

Tom Stoner’s inscription in my review copy of Open Spaces Sacred Places was “Be inspired!” And I truly am, every time I look at the book and think about TKF’s amazing work. But we can learn a lot from this book, too, and I’m sure I’ll refer to it again and again. For anyone who has waged the uphill battle of getting something built, especially something that involves the collaborative process with designers and community members and administrators and red tape and bureaucracy, these stories provide something of a road-map, hope, and yes, inspiration.

You can learn more about Open Spaces Sacred Places at this site:, where you can also buy the book. And for those of you who missed the earlier blog posting about TKF, click HERE for a nice article by Anne Raver of The New York Times about the organization.

NYT Article by Anne Raver on the TKF Foundation

Rob Cardillo for The New York Times
The New York Times published a lovely article last week about the TKF Foundation, whose book I mentioned in a recent posting (Open Spaces Sacred Places, 10/1/08). Anne Raver (“Public Spaces Meant to Heal” – click here to read the article) paints a portrait of the TKF Foundation and several of their 120 projects. Since Tom and Kitty Stoner started TKF 12 years ago, the Foundation has funded about $7 million in projects for community gardens, healthcare facilities, prison gardens, and other public places, primarily in Baltimore, Washington, and Annapolis. TKF’s mission is “to provide the opportunity for a deeper human experience by supporting the creation of public greenspace that offers a temporary place of sanctuary, encourages reflection, provides solace, and engenders peace.” 

The images in the article and in this posting are from the Amazing Port Street Sacred Commons in east Baltimore, which is one of the many projects in TKF’s new book, Open Spaces Sacred Places. I’ve received my copy, so stay tuned for a more thorough review of this beautiful and inspiring book.

Rob Cardillo for The New York Times

Healing Gardens in Prisons

Prison garden at Elmore County Correctional Facility, AL 
Photo courtesy Alabama Department of Corrections
Amy Lindemuth, who submitted her thesis for the Therapeutic Landscapes Database References page (see previous post), also recently published an article in the Journal of Mediterranean Ecology on healing gardens in prisons: “Designing Therapeutic Environments for Inmates and Prison Staff in the United States: Precedents and Contemporary Applications.” This is a really interesting area of the field of landscape and healthcare design that I would like to delve into more, maybe eventually giving it its own page on the TLD. The prison industrial complex, as Angela Davis calls it, has grown astronomically in recent decades, and access to gardens and gardening has been found to have a positive effect on those “inside.” 

Last year, Clare Cooper Marcus wrote a great piece about UC Berkeley Landscape Architecture students’ work on a prison hospice garden in Vacaville, CA (first published in Frameworks, the UC Berkeley College of Enviornmental Design Alumni Magazine, Fall 2006, pp. 10-15) which was reprinted in the ASLA Healthcare and Therapeutic Design Professional Practice Network 2007 Newsletter. Scroll to page 6 to read that article.

After a quick search on the web, I found two interesting articles to include here. 

One is from the Human Flower Project, titled “Flowers in Purgatory,” from July 2006. That’s where the above photo is from. 

The second is from the TKF Foundation website, one of their Sacred Space Locations: The Metropolitan Transition Center in Baltimore, MD.

And finally, if you’re interested in this subject, the book Doing Time in the Garden: Life Lessons Through Prison Horticulture, by James Jiler, should definitely be on your reading list.