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Where EAST meets the Northwest

BEAUTY BEHIND BARS. For the last five years, members of the Asian Pacific Family Club at the Oregon State Penitentiary have been working to create a Japanese Healing Garden at the maximum-security prison in Salem, Oregon. Pictured are a visual (bottom photo) of what the garden will look like when complete and the beginning of construction (top photo).

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #09 (May 6, 2019), page 16.

A Japanese Healing Garden offers resilience to men in custody:

The power of the human spirit to transform

Part one, of a three-part series

By Deb Rodney
Special to The Asian Reporter

Picture this: You walk into a lovely garden full of plants. Itís lush and green. Bits of color tease your senses. The air smells fresh. You feel calm and nurtured.

Now picture this: You walk into the Oregon State Penitentiary and a series of six different metal gates lock behind you with a clang. Itís gray and depressing. Thereís little color to soothe your senses. The air is thick and seems heavy on your head. You feel anxious.

What happens when you put a healing garden inside a maximum-security prison fence?

Thatís what the members of the Asian Pacific Family Club living out long sentences inside the concrete walls of the Oregon State Penitentiary want to find out. For the last five years, they have worked faithfully to create a Japanese Healing Garden on the grounds. It began with a small seed of an idea. They wanted to add something beautiful and cultural to their hard, cold, dreary, and racially tense environment. Their project has changed the lives of many people both inside and outside the prison, and the garden hasnít even been built yet!

The Asian Pacific Family Club was founded in 1998 to create opportunities to educate and celebrate Asian and Pacific Islander heritages. Through connections with the outside, they have brought many classes and cultural programs to the prison over the years and have inspired men of all races by broadening their perspective. Prison staff club advisor Patrice Lans described the gloomy prison activity room full of men dressed in plain, prison-blue folding brightly colored bits of paper into traditional origami figures.

An ambitious venture

The Japanese Healing Garden project is by far their most ambitious venture. Club members have raised more than $300,000 in money, materials, and in-kind help. They have inspired and enlisted the support of Hoichi Kurisu, who has designed gardens around the world, supervised the construction of the Portland Japanese Garden, and firmly believes that nature heals. A contract has been negotiated and signed with his design company, Kurisu International. This was no easy feat as it required the cooperation of prison officials and had to meet the stringent security policies of the prison right down to the specific height of the individual trees.

In 2014, the prisonís Veteranís Club created a Veteranís Memorial inside a small, empty fenced part of the prison yard. It was such an inspiring project that in 2015, the warden at the time asked the prisonís other activity clubs to come up with some ideas for using the space.

Johnny Cofer, todayís project coordinator, remembered a vague, urban-legend kind of story about a koi pond at the prison that the old-timers talked about. At the meeting with the warden, he slid a piece of paper to the club president, which said, "What about a koi pond?" He scribbled back, "Why not?" and suggested it to the warden who said, "Didnít there used to be a koi pond here?" Then he asked them to submit a proposal.

The idea grew from a simple koi pond. Todayís Asian Pacific Family Club president and artist, Toshio Takanobu, built a small clay model with a pond for koi, a bridge of inspiration, and an encompassing, mystical circle of stones.

Toshio describes the bridge in the clubís vision: "Each step on the bridge is a symbol of our journey through life. As we proceed, we discover things about ourselves and others. And we become what we are destined to become. The steps represent Hope, Transformation, Trust, Integrity, and Love."

Designer Kurisu held to the vision. On February 22, 2019, a ground blessing ceremony took place. It was led by Buddhist community supporter David Komeiji, Rev. Andrew Uzunoe, and Rev. Lisa Uzunoe of Konko Church of Portland.

After a roller coaster of emotions spanning five years, Johnny describes how he feels: "Resilience is exactly what it took to get us to this point. Many times, Iíve dreamt about and imagined the garden. It has gone far beyond my expectations but there were many times where it felt like the event that happened that very day was going to end the project. Because of the support from the Department of Corrections, particularly our advisor, Patrice Lans, and our community partners, we found solutions for every challenge that came up."

"I feel grateful that the challenges we overcame brought us this far," Toshio added. "The main priority in this environment is security. The stigma of prison life between the keepers and the kept has always been divisive and has strict boundaries. Weíve consistently worked alongside the staff, not against but together."

It has taken patience, diligence, and resilience to bring the healing garden to reality. The healing began with the vision but the real resilience and transformation for Johnny Cofer and Toshio Takanobu began long before this project. Each has a remarkable story.

Johnny Cofer

Johnny is serving two concurrent life sentences and has spent the last 20 years behind prison bars. Most of that time he spent as a prison hustler scrapping for turf and perks.

"Iím the son of a U.S. soldier and my Vietnamese-Chinese mother. I was born in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, which left a very bad taste in peoplesí mouths. So, I grew up as a mixed kid when there was a lot of racism around being Asian in Portland. I got into fights a lot over my identity and culture. I didnít fit in around Asians or Caucasians. Most of my life I was struggling to find my identity. When I came to prison I felt a great sense of hopelessness, anger, frustration, and a lack of accountability and responsibility. I spent a lot of time in my cell thinking about things that happened in the past, imagining a different future for myself, and looking for any distraction from the harsh conditions. I was centered on what I was missing in my life and refused to take any classes or help myself. What was the point if Iím never getting out? But the garden project has changed me. If you go about life looking for a sense of identity and then you go to prison and find it there ó what an unlikely place."

For years, Johnny was caught up in self-pity and frustration. His first breakthrough came when his father died and he lost his connection with the outside world. He felt an overwhelming sense of loneliness. It took a while for him to realize that he needed to look inside his own caged environment for connection. He took a year-long class on non-violent communication which inspired him to more honestly address his feelings and needs. And then he opened up further and looked outside the prison of his own mind to the needs of those around him. He became part of the Asian Pacific Family Club, was mentored and nourished there to become a leader. With Toshio and other members of the club, he has played a significant role in creating the garden.

"After 13 years of doing nothing positive, Iíve found a meaningful purpose," Johnny says. "Iím doing something in my life now that matters to people other than myself. Iíve accepted that this is where Iím going to be but I have new aspirations."

Toshio Takanobu

Toshio is about in the middle of a 25-year sentence.

"I grew up in Saipan, an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a farm. I came to Oregon and left everything I knew," Toshio said. "With no family here, I tried to fit in and went through a bad breakup with my girlfriend who was the only person I had out here. When I lost that, I lost everything. One of the reasons Iím here is my drug abuse. Coming from a strong family and cultural background, I felt ashamed and embarrassed about my choices in life. Here I learned I had to put a mask on, be tough, and not show weakness. Everything is iron and concrete. People become a product of their environment. We have to become hard like concrete. It takes away your dignity."

Although Toshio grew up on a farm, he didnít see the impact of nature. "It was something I took for granted," he said. "Until we lose something, we donít take the time to reflect on what keeps us sane, what keeps us happy and inspired." He said the designer, Hoichi Kurisu, impressed upon him the idea that in this modern world we imprison our minds and overlook the important things in life.

There is something truly inspiring about finding resilience at the very bottom of the human experience of suffering. The garden project has transformed these two men. Undoubtedly, its peace and beauty will soften the harsh edges of prison life.

In the nature-barren prison yard, a few of the trees have been planted and are already doing their work. Johnny describes their therapeutic power: "It had been 20 years since I touched a tree. The day the trees came in, I got to smell the pine needles and hold them in my hands. I didnít want to leave them. I wanted to stay out there all night. I felt the trees speaking to me and I was talking to the trees. People were looking at me and laughing but I knew right away that I had this strong connection to them ó that I was going to make sure they were safe. Now that they had found their new home, they would be cared for and I would make sure of that."

The day the trees were planted, many men who had been locked up for decades in a sea of sorrow and loss approached them and said thank you. Some of them hadnít seen a tree for 30 or 40 years and said they missed them.

Both Johnny and Toshio are serving time for violent crimes. Theyíve found part of their resilience in accepting responsibility for the hurt they brought upon others. With that acceptance, they have been able to accept themselves and their situation. They have found the strength to take classes and educate themselves. They have found identity and family in their prison community and have committed to be of service. Not only in prison, though, their service has already rippled out past the prison walls through their inspiring examples of resilience.

"We are finding things that are therapeutic and calm and peaceful to the soul, given where weíre at," says Toshio.

As my interview ended and the men headed off to be counted, I looked through a dingy window to the spot where the first little trees have been planted and I had my own epiphany.

As strange as it may seem to some, in the company of Toshio and Johnny, I felt I was in the presence of spiritual masters. As casualties of a toxic culture, they have been swept into the volatile fire of devastating human circumstances, and have been reduced to the ashes of suffering and humility. And still they have mastered resilience. They have found hope through their commitment and service to others. Maybe itís not so strange to find personal meaning there where the clocks tick out each moment of incarceration. Stripped down to the bare essentials of the physical world like monks, they have found their inner strength.

I remembered what Toshio said, "We wake up without an alarm clock with a purpose. We are incarcerated but thatís not going to stop us."

This story originally appeared in the April edition of the Portland/Vancouver Natural Awakenings magazine, <www.NAPortland.com>. Reprinted with permission. Deb Rodney has spent her career writing about change, empowerment, and resilience. Sometimes she hosts soirees or leads workshops. Please share thoughts and comments with her at <debrodney@gmail.com>. Watch for part two, "A Japanese healing garden offers resilience to men in custody: connection and community."

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