April 2009: Kathryn Waitkus '79

Kathryn “Beth” Waitkus ’79 is founder and director of the Insight Garden Program (IGP) at San Quentin state prison, California’s oldest correctional institution. IGP’s goal is to rehabilitate prisoners through the process of organic gardening. By working in a natural environment, participants learn the vocational and life skills needed to become productive members of society.

Waitkus was graduated from Tufts University with a B.A. in political science and received an M.S. in organizational development from Pepperdine University. She has spent years developing and implementing internal and external strategic communications campaigns in both Washington, DC, and the Bay Area, and is the principal of InsideOut Consulting.

Deeply affected by the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Waitkus felt inspired to give back to the community. A friend introduced her to the Insight Prison Project, a leader in prison reform and prisoner rehabilitation, and after receiving intensive volunteer training at San Quentin, she decided to establish a rehabilitative gardening program there.

The challenges were immense at first, but finally, in collaboration with prison staff and administrators, volunteers, and prisoners, she was able to implement plans for a garden within the medium-security prison yard. As part of her graduate research work in organization development, Waitkus also conducted extensive research on the Insight Garden Program’s impact on the physical environment and social climate of a prison yard. Her thesis on the pre-and-post-garden implementation has been one of the only research projects conducted on a rehabilitation program at San Quentin. Although the program received its initial funding from individual donations, the Agape Foundation, an organization dedicated to non-violent social change, eventually became the program’s fiscal sponsor.

Practical organic gardening and landscaping skills help prisoners find meaningful work after release. Classes and experiential contact with nature develop interpersonal qualities of responsibility, discipline, and mindfulness, so that participants learn to respond rather than react. They gain self-respect, pride in their work, and a higher level of functioning, allowing them to break the cycle of incarceration. “We are specifically focused on helping men reconnect to themselves, their communities, and the natural environment (‘inner’ and ‘outer’ gardener philosophies),” says Waitkus, who serves as lead classroom facilitator as well. “Over a six-year period, we have put more than 500 men (all of whom will be or have been paroled) through the program.”

The 1,200-square foot organic flower garden on the prison yard is open to all and is used as a learning lab. It is the only place on the prison yard where all races mix freely without fear of retribution (usually men self-segregate based on race and gang affiliation). IGP is currently in the planning process to build a vegetable garden to add sustainable agriculture and nutrition to the program’s curriculum, which is already heavily focused on environmental care and sustainability. “The prisoners have started to question water and energy usage at the prison and are well-educated in ecological issues from basic plant biology to global warming. We want to find the funding to start a job placement program so that men can get landscaping, gardening, or ‘green’ jobs when they leave prison – so no person is left behind in the green economy. By providing prisoners with life and vocational skills to become productive citizens, we contribute to a safer, more humane society.”

Building on her vision of eco-equity through a continuum of care both inside and outside the prison walls, Waitkus also envisions replication of her program at other California state prisons. “Our work requires enormous tenacity in a system with such resistance to change. But we intend to change that system from the ground up, one person at a time.”

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