Oregon prison’s healing garden offers renewed perspective

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In 2014, Johnny Cofer, who is incarcerated at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Ore. told the institution’s activities director, Patrice Lans, he would love to see a Japanese garden and koi pond outside in the yard of the facility.

A SANCTUARY WITHIN A PRISON ­— The Oregon State Penitentiary’s Japanese garden opened in November. photo courtesy of Oregon State Penitentiary Photo Program

At the Oregon State Penitentiary, there is an activities department, consisting of 11 clubs, one of which is the Asian Pacific Family Club, a 150-member group that celebrates and educates Asian and Pacific heritage, but is inclusive to everyone. Every month, each club meets with the administration to discuss how to improve the quality of life at the correctional facility. Cofer, the garden project manager and Toshio Takanobu, the president of the Asian Pacific Family Club, presented the idea of a Japanese healing garden to the administration at the meeting. Thus, a blossoming and transformative vision began.

Fast forward to the present, and the grand opening of the “Memorial Healing Garden” in November 2019. The garden could not have been completed without the construction efforts of 188 volunteers in a span of 96 days, along with the guidance and assistance of Japanese garden designer, Hoichi Kurisu, the various grants and donations to fund the project and the inspiration from the Veterans’ Memorial already in place by the Veterans’ Association, another club in the institution. The inmates should be able to access the garden later this month, once the prison has addressed security measures, Takanobu said.

Kurisu was impressed with the Asian Pacific Family Club members’ vision and thought process when he met with them about the project in May 2015.

Asian Pacific Family Club members, in turn, recognized his calm demeanor, Takanobu said. However, they were worried about the project budget. The Asian Pacific Family Club’s budget is $5,000 per year.

“Money will come. First, you must believe in yourself and stay true to your heart that what you’re doing is not only better for you, but to help your community,” Takanobu said Kurisu told them.

The club members followed Kurisu’s advice and soon, the community support started to flood in. The Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, a grassroots social justice organization, helped support the club’s pursuit of their vision. A community leader from the organization helped the club members with writing grants and taught them about obtaining financial support from organizations.

As a result, the inmates secured more than $240,000 in grants, including two groups, the Meyer Memorial Trust, an organization that prides itself on diversity and inclusion, leading to a more equitable Oregon, and the Oregon Community Foundation.

The budget was just one of the challenges the inmates faced in constructing the garden. Other challenges included getting the necessary equipment to build the garden and creating a timeline for the project’s completion.

“Just getting the tools, materials and everything inside and coordination of a timeline and a plan of how we were going to get it accomplished was difficult,” OSP Superintendent Brandon Kelly said.

Healing and peace from the garden helps the inmates. Throughout the project, the inmates held opening and closing circles, Takanobu said. For opening circles, the message was to be “welcoming, encouraging everyone to work as a team, stay positive and regardless of the challenges, let’s continue to work together.”

photo courtesy of Oregon State Penitentiary Photo Program

“Guys would be tearing up expressing how meaningful it is to be a part of something positive and for a moment, it feels like they’re out of the prison environment,” Takanobu said of the closing circles.

The healing garden has helped inspire other correctional facilities to visit it. It has also inspired the staff to build healing gardens in their own backyards, Lans said.

Takanobu has been incarcerated for 13 years, since he was 22 years old. He said he had a negative perspective in his first seven and a half years in prison. However, in the last five and a half years, due to the garden project, his outlook and attitude has changed to be more positive.

“I can say that it has been transformative and rehabilitating for myself and I hope I can share that with everybody that is struggling and have been in my shoes,” Takanobu said.

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