A prison cell transfigured

While teaching in a prison, I got to know a gardener.

Several years ago, as I walked through a prison compound in North Carolina, I noticed flowers: native plants, patches of white and purple phloxes, baptisia, witch hazel, and forsythia alight with yellow blooms. The vegetation graced a section of the sidewalks that connected the housing units to the dining hall, chapel, classrooms, and garment factory where residents sew uniforms for the military for no more than $2 per hour. Every week, after I cleared the ID check and metal detectors, I would make my way through the austere courtyard to the classroom where I’d teach a class for the imprisoned men. I’d always pause at the patch of garden to take note of the changing palette of colors as the winter turned to spring, the spring to summer—life bursting into the drab confinement of the carceral landscape.

I got to know the gardener during my weekly visits. He was one of the prisoners in my class. He told me that, for the past decade of his life there in the facility, he’d witnessed flowering plants sneak their way through the layers of chain-link fencing—seeds trespassing into the enclosure, planting themselves just inside the guarded perimeter. He persuaded the prison administration to let him transplant the vegetation, to cultivate a home for it in the middle of the prison—glimpses of brightness, of beauty in defiance of the concrete gloom.

This was one of his tactics of survival for incarceration. “Do the time; don’t let the time do you,” prisoners say. Despite the conditions of debasement, he cultivated a relationship of mutual care: carceral gardening as tending to his solidarity with fellow prisoners and the earth, one form of life nourishing the other. He wanted something beautiful, he told me, something irrepressibly alive. So he transformed a piece of his everyday existence into a sign for life beyond captivity—plants and flowers plotting a transfiguration.