Japanese garden opens inside Oregon State Penitentiary
By Noelle Crombie
SALEM — The inmates’ idea was far-fetched: install a Japanese garden in the shadow of a massive cellblock at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
For one, prison officials wondered, who would pay for it? Who would do the work? Would the elegant elements of a Japanese garden run afoul of the Byzantine rules intended to keep the maximum-security prison safe?
The men persisted.
They became adept at grant-writing, securing nearly $500,000 to fund their idea. They made presentations to corrections staff, potential donors and others, transforming themselves into polished public speakers in the process. They recruited laborers from their own ranks — nearly 180 inmates in all — who worked during the summer to plant trees, move boulders and install elaborate water features.
This week, five years after floating the idea, the men —and the prison officials who signed off on the project — unveiled something extraordinary deep within the grounds of Oregon’s oldest penitentiary: the largest prison garden of its kind in the country.
To get there, visitors pass through six security gates, a large activities hall and a stairwell that leads to the prison yard. To call the space an unlikely addition to the drab grounds of the circa 1866 prison is an understatement.
The garden occupies an estimated 16,000 square feet of what was an unremarkable grassy area. A steel gate inscribed with the Japanese characters for love and harmony stands at the entrance. Inside, a stone path winds past maple and pine trees. Visitors pass an old growth log as they wander along a pond where colorful koi fish swim.
Looming over the serene scene: cellblock C.
Most of the men involved with the garden project are serving long prison stints for violent crimes and sex crimes. The agency is still determining how to provide inmates access to the garden.
Johnny Cofer, 46, who along with Asian Pacific Family Club president Toshio Takanobu, 35, helped lead the project, said his effort to transform his life in prison led him to dream of a garden.
“It’s easy to look at it as a place where all dreams come to die and that the people around me are all miserable people,” he said. But eventually, after a decade into a life sentence for murder, his perspective began to shift. “I started to imagine this place as my community. I understood I had done so many wrong things.”
He doesn’t know if redemption is possible, he said. But planting a garden inside of a prison was a way, he said, of finding purpose and meaning.
“This garden,” he said, “is a reflection of restorative justice in action.”
Others who worked on the project said they welcomed the opportunity to experience nature in an institutional setting.
“To be reconnected with that element is a good thing —to feel water and see fish and a small pine tree and be able to work on that and be part of bringing that about is a positive thing for a lot of people,” said Earl Allen, 64, who serving a 43-year sentence for robbery and kidnapping.
The project was spearheaded by two prison clubs, the Asian Pacific Family Club and the Veterans Association. Both worked with Hoichi Kurisu, the highly regarded landscape designer who supervised construction of the Portland Japanese Garden.
Kurisu, who owns Kurisu International, a landscape design company, donated his time and materials for the project.
The men who took part in the project said it represented their own efforts to make amends and add something beautiful to a place where little beauty exists.
“A lot of the men in there are doing their best to learn from what they have done in the past and they want to do what’s right,” said Doug Sanders, 47, who is 23 years into a 37-year sentence for robbery and burglary. “They want to move forward, and this is a step. This is a big step.”
Harland Wright, 31, said inmates not only worked on the garden’s construction but also donated their own money.
“We got guys in here only making $30 a month, and they’re still donating $5, $10 a month to the project whenever they can,” said Wright, who is serving a six-year sentence for assault and burglary.
“It just changes the entire mindset of prison,” he said. “It takes us out of these walls and gives us something different to look at.”
On Wednesday, Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, wandered through the garden and stopped to feed the koi fish. She drew a contrast between the quiet garden and the prison yard just feet away.
“I thought to myself, huh, that yard makes good inmates,” she said. “This garden is going to make good neighbors.”