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Where EAST meets the Northwest

BEAUTIFUL BALM. What started as a fragile dream of adding a little beauty to the Oregon State Penitentiaryís desolate landscape will soon become a living space for peace and healing. The prisonís Japanese Healing Garden project has broken ground and is projected to be complete by September.

From The Asian Reporter, V29, #11 (June 3, 2019), page 11.

A Japanese Healing Garden offers resilience to men in custody: Notes to the outside

Part three, of a three-part series

By Deb Rodney
Special to The Asian Reporter

The Japanese Healing Garden at the maximum-security Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) in Salem has broken ground. What started as a fragile dream of adding a little beauty to the prisonís desolate landscape will soon become a living space for peace and healing. It has taken five years of struggle, sacrifice, skepticism of peers, administrative roadblocks, and setbacks.

The pressure has been intense. Asian Pacific Family Club president Toshio Takanobu says, "There was no room for any mishaps. Anything negative would have immediately shut down the project because of the high level of security precautions here."

Iím sitting around a prison conference table talking with Toshio, garden project manager Johnny Cofer, and Scott Bitter, club facilitator and grant writer. All three are serving long sentences. They have raised more than $300,000, procured the design expertise of world-renowned gardener Hoichi Kurisu, and brought together the prison community of "Keepers and Kept" for meaningful collaboration.

Outside in the prison yard, the garden is finally taking shape. Yet, in the midst of the projectís successful culmination, the three of them begin to talk about their feelings of depression.

Scott keeps a journal. Recently rereading some of his writing, he noted that big events like getting a grant or meeting a new community sponsor are followed by bouts of depression. "Reality hits," he says. The lofty excitement of what they have accomplished as they have stretched and grown, plummets in the harsh reality of waking up every morning locked up.

At OSP, almost 2,000 men in custody live as societal throwaways. Being incarcerated for decades, with extremely limited interaction with loved ones, being constantly monitored in a gloomy environment with little beauty and comfort, can be excruciatingly depressing.

Finding resilience is a steep, uphill path

I think about the outside world with school shootings, white supremacists, loved ones with cancer, children on antidepressants, and the looming climate crisis, and am grateful that I can walk in the woods, visit friends, enjoy a glass of wine, and do a thousand things that are denied to people in custody. Would I be able to find the resilience to keep on moving forward, like the men in the Asian Pacific Family Club?

I know one thing with absolute certainty: If some of the men in custody can find resilience despite their grim and despondent lives, they have something to teach us on the outside about finding meaning in our lives.

There are milestones on the journey toward developing resilience. As in any authentic passage, success doesnít happen in a straight line going forward. There are twists and turns, setbacks, and resets. There are moments of breakthrough, awe, gratitude, and reward. If we take the steps, however erratic or smooth, they keep us moving forward.


The first step to finding resilience is to face reality. When we do, we can better figure out what we need.

Johnny describes how he came to the acceptance that took him more than 15 years to find: "I sat in my cell and replayed in my mind, over and over again, how things could have been different. I couldnít begin to help myself because I was stuck in anger and frustration."

"Grieving is a big part of coming to prison and we insulate ourselves because we donít want to feel anything but anger and frustration," says Scott. "Feeling deeply can be frightening because it requires facing the pain we caused to others."

"Hard truths finally came to the surface," Johnny acknowledges. "Thereís no guidebook to tell you what to do when youíve made choices that have caused so much destruction. I had to shift and embrace the reality that I may never get out, not run and hide from it."

In his early prison years, Toshio spent many days in solitary confinement. He remembers thinking, "This is not life. I knew there were better things to do than be involved in negative stuff."

These men acknowledge that they will be "works in progress" for the rest of their lives.

For Laura Dufala, co-owner of Bentwood Tree Farm, who donated most of the gardenís trees and shrubs, the reality of prison life has been eye-opening. She grew up on a farm. "We were over-responsible and my bias was that anybody in prison deserved to be there. I learned thatís not the whole story. Mostly, society sees someone in custody as a non-person. In some ways thatís convenient; you donít have to feel bad about their circumstances." Now she thinks about how we can be more caring with all the members of our human community.

Melissa Michaux, a professor of politics, policy, law, and ethics at Willamette University and co-chair of the Healing Garden Project says, "Prison life is full of frustrations. I saw how patience plus not giving up added up to more than enough. It made me want to think more boldly about my own work."


Accepting that youíll be living in prison for a very long time requires rethinking how to find the nourishment you need.

"I have been creating gardens with a healing purpose for nearly 50 years," says designer Hoichi Kurisu. "What these men on the garden team have is a purity of mind allowing nature to deeply affect their hearts. Working with them I am reminded that for healing to happen, how important it is to have a receptive mind like this."

The healing garden project is showing the importance of nature and beauty in the midst of a grim environment. Along with art, creativity, and practices like yoga, meditation, and journal writing, it is possible to find nourishment internally and live more fully, no matter what is going on externally in our lives.

This is similar in spirit to how those of us on the outside are grappling to understand the climate crisis. Many of us are trying to figure out how to live knowing that the clock is ticking. In this awareness, being resilient takes on new meaning and importance.

Itís more and more important to find beauty, peace, a good conversation, and a warm hug, and experience them fully in the moment so they can nourish and replenish us ó in prison or out.

Having healthy relationships are part of finding resilience, too. From a solid center, where we are cherished, we can find our way. And we learn empathy, and how to cherish others.

Toshio got married a few weeks ago. Johnnyís eyes light up when he says, "I got to watch my friend being in love and I went to his wedding, the first one Iíd ever been to." Toshio, who is usually reserved, smiles broadly and it is lovely to witness his unguarded happiness.

Johnny has been in a relationship with Maren Souders for six years. They have been dedicated partners since before the first ideas of the garden began to "germinate," and have been a deep source of strength, inspiration, and encouragement for each other. Maren, a life coach who works with clients she terms culture shifters, describes their connection: "Our relationship is unique. There are so many things we canít do, yet when we sit down at the visiting table for our three-hour visit we are fully present with each other. Sometimes we simply breathe together. Thatís not something we often get with families and partners on the outside. We could, but we donít. Outside there is often a paralysis of too much choice and the distraction of too much "freedom."

Dufala said she and her husband Tom were surprised that "We can have much more authentic conversations with these guys than we have out in society and with our friends."

Connecting with those you love and supporters on the outside is extremely valuable when one is isolated and imprisoned. And getting a glimpse of the lives of authentic people on the inside is a potent, eye-opening, real-life experience for those living on the outside. Both ways it is a nourishing exchange.

Identity and connection

On a deep level, we all yearn for a place to belong ó in a family, tribe, community, activity, or club. Finding and maintaining a healthy sense of identity and connection is critical when the culture defines you strictly as a criminal.

Says Scott: "When I first came here I didnít see my community as the brothers in here. It was my family and my children, and so I felt alone. Now, Iíve become involved and see my brothers in here as my brothers."

"Prison is a divisive environment," Johnny explains. "Culture and race define safety zones where you hang out. Itís self-segregating. The welcoming inclusiveness of the Asian Pacific Family Club has provided me with a sense of belonging, some hope, and a real connection to my culture. When the definition of ourselves internally begins to change, we can start to redefine ourselves."

Melissa Michaux recounted, "Iíve never seen the clubís core team treat each other with anything but respect, which isnít so true in meetings and projects in the outside world. They depend on each other to grow and develop because their contact with the outside is so limited. Their family club is very inclusive. The diversity reflected there is rare on the outside where we lean toward working with people we feel comfortable with."

Safety and boundaries

In an environment full of walls, bars, fences, and obstacles, itís not surprising that men in custody have something to teach us about safety and boundaries.

"We know why prison walls and boundaries are in place and what purpose they serve," Toshio states. "To survive, we have to respect them. And work within them."

Says Johnny, "I control my exposure to the negativity here. I try to live in this very moment and find what I can do to impact this environment. So, no matter where I end up, Iím going to be all right and the things around me are going to be better."

Melissa noted that she was struck by "the elements of freedom that are not about physical boundaries but about mental and emotional space."

Johnny knowingly says, "If we focus too much on the things we canít change we feel powerless, and the things we can change get overlooked. For example, it was hard to hear people on the outside complaining about their lives when Iím incarcerated here and spent $5 calling them when I made $50 a month. Somewhere along the line, I changed and realized that everybodyís suffering matters."

Meaning and purpose

Finding a greater purpose than just existing in our own myopic world is key to finding resilience.

Toshio, Scott, Johnny, and the Asian Pacific Family Club members found a way to support their community, and by giving to others, they supported themselves to grow in ways they hadnít imagined. Thatís how resilience works.

Souders said it was amazing to watch the garden project every step of the way and to be able to contribute as a community supporter and Johnnyís partner. "They demonstrated what is possible under one of the most limiting situations imaginable. Johnny continues to show me how to transcend the walls around us, or in our minds."

"Not everybody is willing to change their lives. Here, we have to take steps to better ourselves," Toshio wisely says.

Toshio has maple leaves tattooed on his body. Symbolically, they represent the winds of passing time. For him, they signify his time locked up. "Some are half leaves," he says. "They represent the time that I was only half living."

Now there is a Japanese maple in the garden. When he got his tattoo, he never imagined he would see one standing outside in the yard and that he would play such an important role in getting it there.

"We have found a meaningful purpose," Johnny says. "And it is radiating out to others." These men in custody are inspiring us all to breathe a little deeper and live, by far, more than half.

This story originally appeared in the June 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 <>. 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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