What would be your chances of entering an Indonesian prison without being a prisoner? Not many, I can assure you. And what would be your chances of designing and creating a permaculture veggie garden in that prison? Probably once in a lifetime!
Bringing people closer to nature is always a win win situation. Creating an opportunity for prisoners to benefit from nature’s generosity and learn about permaculture in the process was a chance I wasn’t going to miss. Back in September I was visiting a prison on Batam Island, Indonesia.
While I was there, the head of security told me he was interested in producing some food on a small patch of land there. Permaculture behind bars on a remote island close to the equator? Yes, please! I was only given a few hours a day, for five days, to design, implement and train the staff and prisoners while promoting the three ethics of earth care, people care and fair shares. How did I do it? Here are my five steps.
1: Get the OK from the Chief.
In this case, the chief was the head of security. I gave him a streamlined introduction to permaculture, talking through the ethics and process. I was encouraged when straight off the bat he liked the concept of mimicking nature after I explained how the forest is a thriving self-maintaining system full of diversity. He was pumped and asked me if I could create a design for him.
2: Ask questions, observe and assess.
What did the chief have in mind? He saw how the prisoners would benefit from the work involved in implementing the design, its maintenance and, of course, the fresh food it would provide. He showed me around some outdoor parts of the prison where they were growing chilli and eggplants in pots and a big pile of compost. He also showed me a small patch that he had considered for a vegetable garden and explained that he was keen on developing healthy activities for the prisoners. I took the opportunity to record as many observations as I could: How the sun travels over the site, shade, prevailing winds, annual rain fall, the positions of the fences, existing plants, soil type, water source close by, availability of compost, nursery of chilli and eggplants. I also measured the site.
Batam prison food garden design
On site talking through the design
3: Design with clear goals.
I set to work on my design, making the most of the space I had, which was quite small. I was keen to create something with elements that could be replicated in other parts of the prison. I envisioned clear paths, mulch produced on site and a mixture of annual and perennial multi-functional plants. It was important to me that the design was productive, low maintenance, beautiful and inspiring. I selected useful plants that over time could be used in various ways and be transplanted to other similar plots within the prison. The design included a mandala with keyhole paths, no till beds, rotation, mulch produced on site, living mulch, roots, climbers, medicinals, fresh greens and perennials. The guards and prisoners were intrigued by the circular design and enjoyed learning about the permaculture approach of mimicking nature. The guards pointed out that there was plenty of help available and how it would be satisfying for the prisoners to work on the project. It was clear that the garden’s yields, in all their forms, would be welcomed by everyone.
4: Implement, train on the way and mulch, mulch and mulch!
At this stage we were ready to get started, so we set to work. A group of prisoners and I worked for a couple of hours a day for four days. I was training everybody as we went, conscious to explain each element of the design so they could replicate the strategies and design elements. I talked them through harvesting, watering, sowing and saving seeds, transplants and mulch. To mulch the site, we added a layer of dry leaves that I had brought in from outside the prison. There are many benefits to adding a layer of organic matter on top of the soil: It reduces undesired plants (weeds), evaporation, sun and rain erosion, regulates temperature and adds to the soil composition. Bare soil is unhealthy and is almost never seen in nature. The process was fun and productive and had clearly inspired both the guards and prisoners. Every body was motivated to make another similar vegetable garden in the prison. I revised the key elements of the design with them and gave them seeds. I explained to them how designing the access paths first would be key. I also spent time explaining how to transplant the lemongrass, pinto peanut, aloe vera and turmeric.
Preparing the lemongrass transplants for the outer edge of the mandala to be used for cooking, to confuse pests and as future chop and drop mulch
5: Make it beautiful and even magical while functional.
Unique and attractive spaces designed and implemented with permaculture principles and ethics as a framework can be created in back gardens, eco-villages, community centers, market gardens, farms and, why not, prisons. The circular mandala worked well and it gave the space a different feel. The garden can be productive all year round, as I chose both annual and perennial plants, ensuring lots of diversity. I have created several mandalas in very different contexts, climates and countries and one thing is clear to me: The circular design intrigues people and draws them into the garden, people start to engage, connect with and invest in the garden. They start learning about the plants, about harvesting and seeding. The prison was no exception.
Adding a layer of dry leaf mulch
6: Know that the investment is small but the benefits are multiple.
A few hours a day for five days, many pairs of hands and lots of sweat resulted in a beautiful productive space that provides benefits to the prisoners. It made an impact on their physical and mental health through improved nutrition, exercise and something to look forward to in the prison’s day. My hope is the process planted a seed. The group learned a design approach and how to grow organic food, skills they will potentially be able to apply for the rest of their stay in the prison and when they leave. They will be able to transfer these skills to others, perhaps having an empowering ripple effect and contributing the much needed balance of earth care, people care and fair shares. I am deeply grateful to everyone who joined me in making this project happen, especially the prisoners.
Matt Prosser is an international permaculture designer and earth builder.
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