Seeding A New Future For Arizona’s Incarcerated

Two students prune a desert willow in the Whetstone garden.

Two students prune a desert willow in the Whetstone garden.

The speed limit on south Wilmot road is 50 miles per hour. Both sides of the road are lined by a mix of open Sonoran Desert, housing developments, and prisons. Occasionally, you will see guys in orange clothing picking up trash and filling potholes along the road. This drive will take you to many units in the Tucson Prison Complex, including the Whetstone Unit where an unconventional class takes place.

The Whetstone unit holds about 1,500 incarcerated men, most of whom are nearing the end of their sentence. Whetstone is a minimum-security prison, usually housing people with drug offenses or reduced charges for good behavior. All of these men will be going home in the next five years, some of them after being in prison most of their adult life.

The first time I entered the Whetstone Unit, I was going to sit in on a sustainability class and maybe share some gardening tips. I had no idea what to expect. Television gives us a very specific image of what prisons look and feel like. I assumed what I saw on TV wasn’t the whole truth, 

One of the ten plots in the Whetstone garden.

One of the ten plots in the Whetstone garden.

but I did not have any information otherwise. What I experienced that day was some of the most attentive and respectful students I have ever met. A class of twenty men were excited to hear what I, a twenty-year-old college student, had to say, and wanted nothing more than to plant and tend to a garden. I left with the immediate feeling of needing to return. These men were students in a class, but they were also fathers, brothers, sons, and people who had way more life experience than me. I had much to learn from them, and they wanted to hear more from me.

Fast forward three years and I am now the Program Coordinator for the Whetstone Prison Project (WPP). The WPP teaches a 12-week sustainability workshop at the Whetstone Unit twice a year. The workshop frames issues of climate change, environmental justice, and green infrastructure skills through garden-based learning. Ten University of Arizona interns create and teach educational content for the incarcerated students, and work on verifying and connections with housing resources to aid our students in a smooth transition back into society. The project aims at lowering Arizona’s recidivism rates by interrupting the prison industrial complex with environmental education. 

A student admires a passive water harvesting system that was created by classmates.

A student admires a passive water harvesting system that was created by classmates.

The WPP was born out of the knowledge that education can break cycles of poverty, that we are in a critical moment in combating the climate crisis, and that the United States of America has the highest incarceration rate per capita in the world. This information has shaped a project that allows incarcerated and university students to come together to discuss what safety and sustainability truly mean, and learn from life stories of each other. The importance of showing up for your community is the center of our work, and we are making strides to a safer and more sustainable world along the way.

Did You Know You’re in a Conservation District Right Now?!

Hello to all! My name is Sharma Torrens, and I am thrilled to have joined the AAEE Board recently. I am the Conservation Education Director for Arizona Association of Conservation Districts (AACD). The AACD is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizationthat supports and promotes Arizona’s 42 Conservation Districts and their statutory responsibilities. Conservation Districts were formed by the state government in the 1940s in response to the devastation wrought by the Dust Bowl, to protect public lands, conserve natural resources and wildlife, restore and conserve soil resources and prevent soil erosion, and protect and restore the states rivers and streams. The Districts work across the entire state, all land types (federal, state, private, etc.), and with a diverse group of organizations, agencies, and landowners to successfully see natural resource conservation efforts established across Arizona. Districts are administered by farmers, ranchers, private landowners, and others who volunteer their time to see that our limited natural resources are effectively managed for the benefit of all. Districts and their Education Centers provide environmental and conservation education to local schools and communities, agricultural professionals, and others, focusing on topics like soil health, water conservation, sustainable agriculture practices, and our criticalnatural resources.

Districts are truly unique in that they are local experts of local conservation and hubs of conservation education for all Arizonans. Districts can unite diverse and disparate groups to find common ground and foster collaboration to educate the public about the value and importance of agriculture, how to wisely use our natural resources, and how by applying best practices we can protect our environment. 

It was not too long ago that I, like many Arizonans, didn’t understand where our food comes from, thinking it just appeared in the grocery store without considering the supply chain. Most people don’t comprehend that farms and ranches not only supply the food we eat every day, but also support open space, wildlife habitat, and healthy soil and water conservation. Farmers and ranchers are not often thought of as “good land stewards” but they are. In fact, they are the original conservationists of our natural resources, taking great care in their animals, the land, and the wildlife that need open space and forage to thrive. 

What changed things for me was when I learned about the Districts. If others knew about these dedicated individuals and families that work to keep food on our tables while volunteering their time to conserve our limited natural resources and educate others, it would begin to change any preconceived notions about farmers and ranchers. These dedicated men and women are advocates not only for agriculture, but also for environmental and conservation education.