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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.