Portland State students join inmates to build prison garden
Author: Eleanor Piper
Posted: July 11, 2012

Capstone students joined forces with inmates to expand and plant a garden at Oregon’s only women’s prison. Pictured from left to right: Erika Nebel, Renee Harris, and Crystal Kelly.

“Don’t laugh, but this is how I do it,” says Mimi Sams, sitting at the end of an unplanted row as one might sit at the head of a table. She removes one of several dozen dried beans from a small rectangular basket and, with an index finger, pushes it about an inch and a half into the soil. She looks up to find five sets of eyes greeting hers in approval.

There are a few giggles in response to Sams’ demonstration; one of these belongs to Lana Hecocta, who, like Sams, is an inmate here at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility (CCCF), Oregon’s only women’s prison.

Hecocta and Sams are two of eight full-time inmate gardeners at CCCF. Today, they’re joined by six Portland State students in the Women’s Prison Gardens capstone course. The capstone focuses primarily on social justice, corrections, and the impact of incarceration on families and communities, and allows students to work side-by-side with the inmate gardeners.

 “We learn women's stories and break down the barriers of ‘us’ and ‘them.’ We realize that voters and citizens need to take responsibility for making change, because women behind bars are often stripped of their voice. Meeting the women was enough to change my perspective about what a ‘criminal’ is—and I think that if everyone was able to get involved with projects like this, our prison system would look a lot different,” says Zanny Mohrmann, a senior history major taking the capstone. 

The garden sits between two outbuildings within the minimum security section of the prison, and is bordered on its far side by a high fence topped with a twirl of razor wire.

Portland Community College began this garden as an organic horticulture project when the prison opened in 2001. The project lost funding in 2001, and ran only minimally until being revived by a group of volunteers in 2009. That group included Debbie Rutt, who was a volunteer yoga instructor at CCCF before learning about the struggling garden and subsequently deciding to get involved.

Autumn Dowty, Nyssa Achtyes, Debbie Rutt, Mimi
Sams, Deanne Spencer, and Lana Hecocta planting
a new crop of beans.

Last year, Rutt was awarded an Audubon/Toyota Together Green Fellowship, which—in conjunction with a three-year Kaiser Permanente grant awarded to Coffee Creek and the Oregon State Health Department—provided funding to expand the garden as well as garden-related educational programs and training for CCCF inmates. Rutt now serves as the full-time Garden Coordinator, and during these past winter months she has worked with students and inmates to prepare more than a half acre of garden space.

The capstone students had to submit to background checks before they were allowed inside the prison, and were given explicit instructions about what to wear (comfortable, modest clothing) and what to avoid (denim, blue or lime green shirts, and underwire bras, which will set off the prison’s metal detectors). But for students hoping to land jobs in corrections and social work, these restrictions are a small price to pay for such a matchless experience.

Zanny Mohrmann, Crystal Kelly, Matthew Ellis, and Matthew Kilby gardening inside the prison walls.

“Job and volunteer options [in this field] seem really limited,” Mohrmann explains.

In addition to working a few hours in the garden, the capstone students form groups to develop sustainability-related curriculum for future inmate classes at Coffee Creek. This fall, one group of students compiled information about the importance of water conservation, and another looked at various ways that parents can encourage their children to eat vegetables. Rutt says the work they’re doing helps both students and gardeners think about their responsibility to the community.

“For sustainability to be a reality,” Rutt says, “everyone has to be engaged in it. It has to be accessible.”


Eleanor Piper is a graduate student in Portland State's MFA in Creative Writing program.