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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CULTURE & CONNECTION. Inside the cold, hard walls and high fences of the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon, men have lived and died without the companionship of plants and trees. In the last month, that has changed.

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #10 (May 20, 2019), page 11.

Culture and connection: A Japanese healing garden offers resilience to men in custody

Part two, of a three-part series

By Deb Rodney

Special to The Asian Reporter

Living trees and plants are potent medicine. According to indigenous and ancient wisdom, plants have a dynamic intelligence and play an important role in treating soul illnesses. Certainly, they inspire peace, resilience, and health. But do they do more on an unconscious soul level than we can even imagine?

Inside the cold, hard walls and high fences of the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem, Oregon, men have lived and died without the companionship of plants and trees. In the last month, that has changed.

Members of the Asian Pacific Family Club serving long sentences dared to dream that they could be more than their identity as criminals and prisoners. After five years of steady, patient work under the remarkable leadership of club president Toshio Takanobu and project manager Johnny Cofer, there are now trees and shrubs waiting inside the maximum-security fences. They are about to take their place in the landscape of a Japanese Healing Garden collaboratively designed by Hoichi Kurisu, a world-renowned gardener and plant whisperer.

OSP was built in Salem in 1866. With its 10 guard towers and high metal bars and fences, it looks like a steam punk set from an old movie. If you listen carefully, you might hear the whispers of forsaken ghosts who lived their lives secreted away from the outside world where they once travelled on risky, perilous paths. Maybe you can sense the unshed tears of men trained to be too tough to cry.

The Kept and the Keepers

Today, inside the penitentiary is a sensitive and complex community made up of the men in custody (the Kept) and the employees who work there (the Keepers). It has a culture similar to any small city or community. There are certainly very different conditions, but like all communities it shares a basic human need for connection and community.

Assistant superintendent Randy Briones has worked at the prison for 36 years. He says when he started, there were very few programs to help the inmates learn skills that would help them get along on the inside, or help them transition to the outside. "In the í80s, we began to realize that there were guys in here who could actually make it, and we needed to support them," he said. "Weíve evolved into normalizing and humanizing them and their potential."

The administration asks the question, "How can we help you to do better?" There are yoga and meditation classes.

"We want these men to succeed," prison media specialist and garden champion Tonya Gushard says. "Most of them will get out one day and be our neighbors." She explains one of the ways the culture has changed among the Keepers: "We hire differently now. We look for people who can think and collaborate. Weíre not just looking for corrections officers who are big and strong and able to fight."

For the Kept, itís challenging to stretch and grow, locked up day after day where corrections officers watch you constantly in the halls and from the gun towers, and five or six times a day you are counted. Almost every aspect of your imprisonment is governed by policies and rules designed to maintain an extremely high level of security.

Many of the men in custody work. OSP has the largest laundry in the state and many workers sweat over hot, steamy water in the noisy factory environment. They fold blankets and sheets cooperatively in pairs to the specifications of various hospitals. Some do telemarketing in the call center in plexiglass cubicles talking in a very limited way to those in the outside world. Others do kitchen or custodial work.

Communication & connection

Communication with loved ones outside is limited, expensive, and often emotionally painful. Toshio tells a story about phone calls to his family in Saipan: "Before I got involved in the club, and because of the shame and disappointment I could hear in their voices when I spoke to them, I felt the best thing to do was to disconnect quickly so I didnít have to continue to hear that pain, and for them to hear the pain."

According to a 2012 study, a staggering 58 percent of prisoners in Oregon have no visitors. None at all. For years and years. For many, the community inside the prison is all they have. Johnny describes how this happens: "When you first come here, your family and friends say they will be there for you. And then a year or two later, the letters trickle to a few and then stop. You try to distract yourself from the loss of those people you loved ó who you thought loved you."

Some men live in the Mental Health Infirmary, existing in the shadowy world of control and prescription drugs. Thirty-four men live on Death Row.

There are betrayals, frustrations, and gossip. Under the pressure of toxic masculinity where strength is seen only as physical, fights break out and bullies exert their pressure and control.

Toshio explains: "You walk around and the entire environment is hard and cold. Without a doubt, it makes you feel like you have to be hard and cold to survive in it. It doesnít feel safe to express yourself other than through anger or strength, so you put up a front. We do that as humans. We put on masks to adapt to the environment we find ourselves in."

Clearing the heart of a lifetime of debris and pain is difficult for all of us living in a toxic culture. It is especially challenging inside a maximum-security prison. It requires visiting the deepest caverns of the psyche, where fear reigns and love and respect are in short supply. However, it is clearly possible. Some of the Kept have unwound their past, grappled with the pain they caused to others, and have found resilience through community and a greater purpose. Even with all the restrictions, stress, and loneliness, there are positive aspects of the culture.

There are 12 prison clubs that all do good work and provide an important sense of family and connection. The Asian Pacific Family Club lives up to its motto, "Diminishing Boundaries & Overcoming Differences." Johnny says the club gave him a sense of identity and belonging he never had in his life. He says this about the garden project: "It has involved all races and cultures. And boundaries with the staff have broken down just a little. Now, we see more of what we have in common than what is different about one another. Working together on this project has exposed us to what is universal to all of us."

Culture change

Even in the visioning stage, the project changed the prison culture in unexpected ways. Prison staff recreation specialist and mentor Patrice Lans notes: "From the very beginning, all the other clubs supported the project. There werenít the usual questions ó ĎWhat about me?í or ĎWhy didnít we get what they have?í The Asian Pacific Family Club has set a high bar and now some of the other clubs are inspired to step up and hold a bigger vision for themselves."

Some of the men serve as hospice workers for their dying brothers. Some are Peer Companions, who support men with mental-health issues to integrate into the main prison population. Very recently the Equality 8 Club formed to support a greater understanding of LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning) issues and identity. Not so long ago, the exposure of oneís sexual identity could have had serious consequences. The clubís formation and acceptance by inmates and the administration speaks to a culture shift happening inside the prison.

The garden is just outside the cafeteria where its restorative shine can wrap warmly around the men as they head to chow. It can help mitigate the negativity, and bring a moment of peace and beauty to a troubled heart.

"There is excitement as the men see the garden taking shape," Johnny says. "The guys who arenít part of the construction are walking by and hollering "good job!" and are thanking us. Itís a humbling experience."

Of the nearly $300,000 that the club raised, $20,000 came from inmates. Johnny explains why: "Some who have lived inside this prison for 30 or 40 years gave $100, even if they only make $50 a month. They only saw gardens in books and had never seen a project like this. They wanted to be part of it. And some of them are seeing that building a garden is being a man in a way they hadnít imagined."

Briones hopes the garden will be a place where the community, both those in custody and staff, can find restoration and peace away from the negative elements of prison culture.

Gushard, Briones, and Lans say they love their jobs because they get to make a positive difference in peopleís lives. Tonya was even inspired to put in a little Japanese garden in her own backyard.

Johnny teases her, "I havenít seen a photo of it yet." Tonya replies, "Itís not all that great. I donít have a world-class designer working on it like you guys."

Toshio says the staff supported them to reach higher than they imagined they could go. "And people from the outside are telling us that the project has inspired them. Sometimes it takes other people believing in you for you to believe in yourself."

The healing garden has brought the prison community together in many ways. Men of different races and cultures have found compelling reasons to support the project and each other. The Keepers and the Kept have found new, collaborative ways to work together. Toshio particularly credited Lans, their club advisor who plays a crucial role as a liaison with both administrators and outside supporters.

New meaning & purpose

The Asian Pacific Family Club has found meaning, purpose, and a greater belief in their potential by showing what is possible under extremely limited conditions. Others living out their sentences are watching, and perhaps they are realizing that they too can be more than what they imagined they could be.

Johnny says he is grateful that the garden project is changing the bleak prison culture he has lived in for 20 years.

"The original plans were simple. We just wanted to add some beauty to this place Ö and now it has grown into a project that inspires many, many people and has given purpose to many lives."

Toshio and Johnny will undoubtedly be making good use of the years they have left of their sentences because they have other plans for their community. They hope to raise money for another healing garden outside the windows of the restricted units that house the Mental Health Infirmary and Death Row because it bothers them that they canít share the garden with the brothers who live there. They are also in preliminary talks with one of Oregonís largest landscaping companies about a gardening certification program so men in custody can more easily get gardening jobs when they get out.

The radiantly alive trees and plants in the Japanese Healing Garden have taken their place in the prison community, offering their therapeutic beauty and resilience. No one knows the full effects of their healing power but they are clearly essential in the prison, where the men often feel powerless and abandoned.

Lovely lotus flowers grow from mud. Swimming koi are symbols of courage, determination, and advancement. Big stones in a garden are solid and strong, reminding us that strength can be found among delicate flowers and tender, new growth. Gardens connect us to the natural world where it is possible to retrieve the lost pieces of our souls.

The men in custody will be able to watch their garden change, season by season. They can smell it, touch it, linger in it, and cheer it on. It is a reminder of what is possible when a diverse community works together. And it is a constant, living affirmation that somebody cares about their resilience and healing.

This story originally appeared in the May edition of the Portland/Vancouver Natural Awakenings magazine, <>. Reprinted with permission. Deb Rodney has spent her career writing about change, empowerment, and resilience. Please share thoughts and comments with her at <>. Watch for part three, "Notes for the outside." To make a donation to the project, write to Asian Pacific Family Club, Attn.: Healing Garden Project, 2605 State Street, Salem, OR 97310.

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