top of page

A Relook at Farming in California Prisons

Brant Choate, Director of Rehabilitation Programs, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

Amanda Berger, Director, Community Partnerships, Insight Garden Program

Andrew Winn, Executive Director, Insight Garden Program

Megan McDrew, Adjunct Professor - Sociology, UCSC and Hartnell College

For More Information:

My paradigm about life within the walls of United States prisons has been drastically changed! Visiting the incarcerated communities at Soledad and Salinas Valley Correctional Facilities has caused me to hope for greater opportunities for those formerly incarcerated as well as those who have access to high-quality programs while incarcerated because they choose to make a future life for themselves.

What’s on the table? Farming in Prison. This question is being discussed at higher levels of leadership: Can farming be a viable, sustainable vocational training and rehabilitative program that can be adopted across California prisons? By sharing my tours of these medium- and high-security prisons, you may join with many others who champion this program as an effective way to heal and teach life skills that will powerfully aid those reentering society. Brant Choate, Director of Rehabilitation Programs, is exploring the possibility of establishing farms within prison walls to not only supply food to the kitchen but also to re-launch the lives of the residents.

Soledad and Salinas Valley

Warden Luis Martinez, who goes by “Art” welcomed Brant and me into his office. His excitement for growing possibilities at his prison for his community was palpable. Art has been warden now for almost a year at this Level 2 security facility. In his introductory remarks before the tour, he explained that the approach to custody is changing.

Soledad, a medium security correctional facility, is a complex of buildings built in the late 1950s to house those sentenced for breaking the law. It is one of the largest California prisons with a population of ~4800 residents. The site employs ~1600 staff with an annual operating budget of $150 million. It occupies 680 acres. It has become one of three veterans facility hubs of California’s 34 correctional facilities. Salinas Valley State Prison occupies 300 acres, just five miles away from Soledad, is its high-security, Level 4 prison. The warden there is also considering using farming as a means for transitional employment and training to reenter society. Salinas Valley houses 2960 residents of which 771 may be eligible to participate in the proposed farming program.

A Culture of Opportunity

Warden Martinez is about building hope by providing opportunities for growth and development for every resident who chooses it. “We want to prepare our residents for their future so they can find a job and successfully reenter society. To do that, we are focusing on education and building community. Instead of referring to this as a “facility” we are now referring to it as a “community” That means we call people by their first names here.

Ten years ago, Brant Choate, Director of Rehabilitation, laid out a 2020 vision that outlined new ways to educate and rehabilitate residents of California’s prison system. Now opportunities for education are part of the norm. “We are offering options to learn a trade or to get a GED, a Bachelor's Degree or even a Masters Degree. We are finding new ways to connect residents with their families. Internet access, laptops, and virtual learning has made that possible.”

This year in June, 370 laptops will be delivered to those enrolled in curriculums. Hot spots with controlled internet access will be provided for those working on their GEDs, Bachelors or Masters degrees. They will also be available to those learning trades: welding, auto repair, auto refinishing, art, dog training, and masonry. In 2021, the school at Soledad awarded residents 170 General Education Degrees, 16 Bachelors Degrees, and two Masters Degrees.

Soledad Correctional Training Facility

As I toured B-Yard, it was obvious that the culture has been changing. Huge, 16’ tall and 100’ long wall murals of a park with dogs and trees and blooming flowers with children playing dramatically improved the decor of this central yard. On one end of the courtyard, some artists were painting a modified golf cart to look like an army jeep. There was a good deal of humor in the art.

The courtyard was filled with residents, many of whom were exercising or playing basketball or handball. Volunteer crews keep the courtyard sanitized. Reveille is played each morning as the flags are raised. “Keeping people active by using their hands and minds not only improves morale but also makes our jobs easier.” Captain Ortega commented.

Because there is such a concentration of veterans here (95% of the population), Veterans Healing Veterans has been working to secure medical and monetary benefits for them and their families during and after their prison term. Self policing is encouraged.

Following rules and policies is still essential to safely and effectively operate a prison. Yet, policy is changing little by little as old rules are challenged for their current relevance. The guard officers are looking forward to new memorandums and changes to the Department Operation Manuals that will enable farming to be done safely.

Your Choice, Your Life

The founding premise of this educational system is one of personal choice for personal development. Each week, Warden Martinez visits the general population in the main building to see who is interested. In small circles, he invites those who want to be clean and make that decision for their future to enroll in these Level B developmental programs. Of course there are those persons who have gang ties and loyalties who reject this offer. Overcoming hate and deeply ingrained anger can be extremely difficult. Not having walked through their life’s experience, it is difficult to understand the challenge of letting go.

Safety Considerations

For those who choose education and employment, less security is needed. In B-Yard, the atmosphere is noticeably more free. There are less armed guards. It feels more like a college campus. People are walking, exercising, playing chess, or just relaxing. Drug rehabilitation is offered to the entire population. While some are reluctant to attend, over time they begin to see that this possibility of being clean opens up a new world of possibility. The vocational trade programs that require tools have responsible instructors who have their students check out tools as needed and check them back in at the end of the day. Tool shadow boards make it easy to see what is missing.

Incarcerated Farming Concept

The officers on tour guided me to a one-acre plot just outside the drug treatment center that could be used for the farm. The grassy area has great sun exposure and is well drained. Another plot about a half an acre was identified as another farm area. Living in the Salinas Valley, it is obvious that farm employment is a viable opportunity.

Salinas Valley Correctional Training Facility - (photo taken by CDDR phone)

What could farming within the prison look like? Current rules prevent trees. Yet, when asked for the reason, it is because they prevent visibility and could be used for their long branches to escape. Tables and furniture need to be fastened to the ground and not easily moved.

Considering these limitations, the following techniques or approaches may be possible:

  • Low-tunnel (5’ x 50’ x 3’ tall) covers that act as greenhouse for plants

  • Two-dimensional dwarf fruit trees - (espalier)

  • Sprinklers with short hoses or fixed pvc piping irrigation.

  • Hand tools (forks, spades, hoes, rakes, trowels) that are checked out and back in.

  • Regular remote virtual connects with farmers for training

  • Composting food waste and paper to create biologically active soil for the farm

  • Supply kitchen with fresh vegetables with a credit to the account of the farmers

  • Tables designed for seeding and food cleaning appropriate for the prison

  • Raised beds for those with disabilities

  • Garden art with uplifting, humorous quotes.

  • Hand watering where possible.

  • Canvas grow-bag containers for growing above ground - 7, 15, 30, 200 gallons

  • Safe scissors or pruners for cutting

  • Herbs and therapy gardens with pollinator plants

  • Conex shipping container for storing tools

  • Utilizing walls with southern and eastern sun exposure

Given proper consideration, a farming curriculum and program could be established not only to learn technical farming skills but also life skills.

Enabling Resources from Within

A farm with a social mission is most effectively run with the support of a community of resources. Because of limited prison access to volunteers, the volunteers would likely need to come from the staff who work there. It seems reasonable due to the location of these prisons, that many of the staff have farming experience. Amanda Berger, Director of Community Programs at Insight Garden Program, said, “Having staff support from the CDCR is very important. Their support combined with paid staff from the outside, volunteers, students and staff from universities and cooperative extension programs in California can really make a difference!”

The facilities are equipped now these resources:

  • Access to the internet

  • Classrooms and Instructors

  • Laptops for independent study

  • Remote Learning

  • Support of the Veterans Transition Center and Veterans Healing Veterans

  • Local Colleges (Hartnell Community College, UC- Santa Cruz)

A Coalition of Supportive Community Organizations

Brant referred me to Amanda Berger, Director of Community Programs of Insight Garden Program which has been championing gardening at the San Quentin prison for almost 20 years. Andrew Winn, Executive Director, also shared with me the rewards and challenges of working in a prison environment and how the Insight Garden Program has really given him gain a new lease on life. Amanda learned a lot in her volunteer work with Farming Hope in San Francisco. They implement a farming and culinary program in a restaurant in San Francisco to teach a broad range of culinary and professional skills to formerly unhoused and incarcerated people. She explained how challenging the barriers are to teach gardening with changes in wardens, access to water, and communicating with all the right parties. It took them five years to get their first full season garden program. With a SEED grant, they developed a unique 48-week curriculum that is taught in 4 -12-weeks themes. One of those themes is permaculture. Another is gardening and the inner self. Their program is holistic - starting with a needs assessment of those in prison, training in prison, and then following them through the reentry process including connecting them with a cohort of formerly incarcerated in a “local hub” who can coach them through the incredibly challenging process of reentry. Amanda said they’ve been at 10 prisons so far. “It’s about restoring connection to self through nature.” Andrew said.

Photo Courtesy of Insight Garden Program

“There’s a lot of rules in the current prison operating manual that will need to be adapted for us to call this a sustainable program. Yet, the stories of those impacted by gardening are inspirational.” We proposed growing a “salad bar” garden. It’s popular among residents because they often lack fresh produce in their diet.

“Our major challenge is maintaining sustainable funding to do what we do. California grants for this work often run for three years. Then, the money is awarded to other programs.” When asked what she would recommend, Amanda said, “We just want a seat at the table. All those interested in this work should be invited to discuss what is the best way to address it. Let’s develop a long-term viable plan together!”

Coming out of prison is so much harder than coming out of homelessness. There’s just so many institutional barriers to overcome. Meanwhile other states are doing great things with farming including certifying beekeepers, composters, and organic growers. Yale hosts an annual conference “Sustainability in Prison” to pull experts together.

Academic Resources Interested

Meanwhile, academia is finding new ways to learn about social justice reform through incarcerated resident educational and vocational programs. Megan McDrew is a lecturer in sociology with a focus on community and justice at both UCSC and Hartnell College. In fact, she has been volunteering at Soledad prison for five years. Each week she spends two hours with residents discussing a poem or a literary work to have an educational exchange. When asked what she thought of the potential of a farming program, she exclaimed, “I’ve been waiting for something like this for years! They need to be outdoors to get much-needed exercise. At the same time, having access to fresh, healthy food would make such a difference! Many I have worked with say that they miss seeing the color green.”

Megan has some ideas on how to engage her students to fulfill community workshop hours as part of her classes at UCSC and Hartnell College in harmonious themes in transformative justice and mass incarceration. “Most students seem willing to drive two hours to experience this meaningful work.” There’s likely grants that could help fund the farm. Some are awarded to organizations who implement their program in high-needs prisons like Soledad and Salinas Valley.

Identified Hurdles

Brant perceives the greatest challenge is our traditional mindsets - what has been in the past. It will take openness and creative thinking to venture beyond what has been done. The prison seems to operate in isolated populations based on level of cooperation and trust. For those residents willing to be clean and learn, traditional restrictions can be relaxed.

The farm is targeted for the population who have chosen to better their lives through learning and employment. The program will be offered to them as an opportunity to live a better life. Those privileges may be extended or retracted based on how the residents react to the initial phase of the program.

Steps to Realizing Farming within Prison

As we concluded the tour, Brant advised the staff leadership: “Don’t worry about policy: Shoot for the dream!” He will be working at identifying what policies need to be adapted to enable a farming vocational training program. The wardens of these prisons are strong advocates for farming for their community. The multidimensional benefits of food, learning, and wellness support this proposal. Once conceptual approval is granted, detailed proposals and procedures can then be developed.

Salinas Valley Correctional Training Facility - (photo taken by CDCR phone)

Author: Farmer Karl

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page