Permaculture in Prison

I get asked a lot about my background and so I thought I’d write about my experiences in the open. A lot of people will know about my time spent inside through a quick google of my name. Rather than have people believe the near-on lies in the papers released at the time of my sentencing, I want to claim this experience as my own.

I’m not ashamed of my background, I’m certainly not ashamed of being involved in the animal rights movement. While I can’t go in to the motivations for my actions, as that would be ‘promoting animal welfare’ and mean a breach of my license, I can at least reflect on the experience of the 21 months of HMP that I had.

So how the hell can you learn about permaculture when you’re in prison?! How can you see the principles in action when spending most of your days in a cell?

I completed a distance learning course with ACS education which was a certificate in horticulture and a permaculture design course as part of it, covering ‘permaculture systems’ and ‘advanced permaculture’ as well as an elective model in herb culture. It was a 700 hour course that I managed to get a grant for and it filled my sentence in a way that kept me sane and kept me engaged in life beyond bars.

Of course I devoured any literature I could get sent in – books, permaculture magazines, zines, you name it. I obviously couldn’t get online and I certainly couldn’t visit any sites but I was still abuzz with what was going on in the outside world. I read Bill Mollison’s Designers Manual and Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual from front to back about a dozen times. I drew plans of the prison gardens and fantasised about how they could be filled with perennial, health-giving plants to offset the industrial diet we were served with.

What I want to communicate to the world, is that there is no where on earth where permaculture cannot be applied, and I think ‘doing some time’ is no exception.

1. Observe & interact – In jail, you have to watch your back all the time. It’s not nice being judgemental but you really have to be as to keep yourself safe. Observation is primary. Through careful observation you can see who runs the show on a wing, who is being bullied, who is dealing drugs, and who hopefully has got a heart of gold and has just ended up in the wrong place. By observing the system, slowly and astutely, you can also understand the power relationships at play – the officers you need to talk to, to get certain things done, the ones that don’t have the best intentions.. all of these observations are essential.

Prison also gave me an opportunity to, would you believe it, observe the natural world. I’ve barely lived anywhere in my life longer than 6 months and so for me being in the same cell for just under two years meant that I could really see the seasons change. I worked in the garden and there wasn’t a dandelion in sight that I didn’t know about or expect the following spring. I kept a log book of birds I could see from my window and recorded the weather, as well as the moods of the ‘landing’ (the wing). I could see how the moon affected the behaviour and tension of the place.

By interacting with care, and making sure everything you did had a certain intention, you could make life a hell of a lot easier and more enjoyable for yourself and your friends. This first principle made complete and utter sense to me.

2. Catch & store energy – Your energy in a place like jail is sacred. It’ll either make girls of break them. Many, unfortunately, will be knocked out on prescription drugs and sleeping tablets, loosing any time for anything after lock-up or even to stay awake during ‘education’ or other activities. Others will eat the processed food till their plate is clean and remain sluggish and slow till they woefully accept the prison belly (an extra 2 stone normally).

For me, I wanted to use every scrap of energy I had to turn the situation on its head to make it a positive and constructive experience. I got up early and worked out. I barely ever watched TV accept for the odd documentary which I valued for learning. I went to the gym whenever I could (twice a week normally for an hour) as to keep myself energised, my muscles strong and my body in good shape, I didn’t want the system to turn me into a shape I hated and destroy my self esteem.

I resisted a lot of the meals, my chips went to the next girl in the queue, I tried to stay as healthy as I could as a way of catching and storing my energy. But it is beyond the physical, you have to nourish your emotional reserves too and ‘catching and storing’ that for me means remaining positive, keeping happy reminders of people you love, hanging on to memories of decent visits or times ‘on the out’. You have to surround your self with people (if you can find them inside) who support and love who you are rather than try to bring you down. All of these are necessary to really catch and store your precious vitality in the prison system.

3. Obtain a yield – for me this meant, get something constructive out of the entire experience. This meant to become stronger and fitter, I got my PDC and I completed an open university course in environmental studies, passing with distinction, as well as a diploma in herbalism at the beginning of my sentence. I read well over 150 books. These yields may not seem much to others but they keep you going. For other girls, or guys, inside their yield may be to get clean, or to gain a literacy qualification, or to simply get away from an abusive partner. Making the most of your sentence helps you feel like you haven’t just lost your life to the system, you’re reclaiming it.

Of course I am sure a few drug dealing officers and inmates would know the meaning of ‘obtain a yield’ too!!

4. Apply self-regulation & accept feedback – Accepting feedback means accepting limits. In jail, you literally just have to accept that you can’t do certain things, that your place in the world has dropped (according to most) and that above all you just have to ‘get on with it’. You also have to accept that most things are achieved in incremental steps, as is the pace of life inside. I also like to think of self-regulation as self-reflection, girls finally get the chance to reflect on where they are heading. A wing is almost like its own self-regulating system in itself, with certain characters in certain roles and most people ‘knowing their place’ or at least slowly adjusting to it when they understand ‘the ropes’.

5. Use & value renewable resources & services – This may be looking at it too much, but this principle for me manifested in jail is that you really have to rely on the core of human beings. It is that feeling of sisterhood, strength and spirituality that is renewable and is what keeps people going. You can’t depend on drugs, alcohol, sex, clubbing, or even long walks by the beach or whatever makes you tick, you are literally ‘back to basics’ and reliant on human contact and brief encounters with the natural world for your survival.

6. Produce no waste – Girls in jail certainly know how to make the most of every single scrap of anything that comes their way, I can assure you of that! Whether thats using yoghurt lids to smoke crack with, or old cloths to make curtain ties. However you do see some pretty creative examples! While the prison system still produces an insane amount of waste, you can guarantee at least for the girls on the wing most items are multifunctional!

7. Design from patterns to details – To me this principle resonates as ‘keep looking at the bigger picture’, understand that nothing lasts for ever, and that unless your sentence is for life, you are leaving that gate behind one day. You can’t just get by on focusing on your sentence, you have to dream and vision what you seek for your future.

As a pattern I also think it is useful for prisoners to gain an understanding of where they fit in the wider social and economic systems of society. Having a class consciousness and an awareness of the corporate takeover of prisons, is positive and necessary, especially for many who want to understand why they may have ended up inside. Knowing that private prisons turn inmates into commodities helps you understand that there is no incentive for your well-being, rehabilitation or safety unless there is a profit incentive, and may help girls who struggle to understand why most staff just ‘don’t care’. The majority are there for their mortgages and understanding that pattern helps you understand the details of life inside.

8. Integrate rather than segregate – While there is a fair amount of informal segregation inside, such as most of the asian women staying together or the portugese staying together and so forth, that is pretty understandable due to the language barrier and the social exclusion they face in this country. However most girls get by by integrating with others, it doesn’t mean everyone has to start listening to dubstep and wearing nike trainers, but it does mean that you can’t judge people. You are not better or more worthy than anyone else on your balcony and by connecting with each other you strengthen yourselves.

This principle is also relevant for rehabilitation efforts. If people want to ‘integrate’ back into society then it means they need to move beyond the groups they had kept themselves segregated in, whether thats a local drug scene or the prostitution circuit.

9. Use Small & Slow Solutions – I used to say to myself most days ‘small and slow’ as a way of keeping tabs on how long I had done and I long I had left to do. The slow, long-term steady approach is all you have in prison and seeing this as sometimes as a good thing can help. To remind yourself that yes, right now you aren’t planting hundreds of fruit trees somewhere, but you are learning about the needs of that marigold in your hands and watching it grow and it is just as important to build your skills and awareness steadily.

10. Use & Value Diversity – I could never bring myself to say I ‘miss’ jail, not in a million years. But I do miss the diversity, it was like the Isle of Lesbos compared to Somerset where you feel like the only gay in the village. There are people from all different cultures and countries and this certainly ‘adds to the mix’ in a positive way. While I don’t wish for women to be forced to brake the law to come into this country as refuges or as economic migrants, or for women to carry drugs as an escape of their abusive relationships, having women from all over the world certainly strengthens the whole. You can learn so much about different cultures and traditions and find that people from ALL walks of life may find themselves in prison.

11. Use edges & value the marginal – Prison is the ultimate edge of society! It’s where the most marginal, underground communities converge. I am without a doubt that this hive of activity can offer resources for creating a sustainable future, if only all experiences were valued for their learning capacity. I know girls who don’t have one qualification to their name, who are some of the most inquisitive, intelligent and creative people I’ve met. We need solutions from all walks of life, not just from middle class academics or high brow conservatives.

12. Creatively use & respond to change – We can and we must use change to our advantage. For many, a sentence can do just that, it’s a dramatic leap for sure but for many it is a new beginning. My favourite quote that relates to this is that ‘In chaos lies unparalleled opportunity for imposing creative order’ (Bill Mollison). Yes, jail is chaos, yes, it can mess up your entire life and mean you loose your job, your friends or your girl, but at the same time it is an unparalleled opportunity for re-designing your life, hopefully for the best and for the benefit of all forms of life. The problem is the solution.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article, please let me know what you think.

This blog has been inspired by a conversation with Graham Burnett. If you have experience of working with prisoners, or ex-prisoners, or would be interested in maybe starting something in a prison or just exploring the possibilities, please get in touch, I would love to hear from you

  • Clement

    I realy like your article!
    It seems like you have made the best out of your time inside,
    it remind me of an article about someone with a similar experience.
    Here is a link
    All the best for your new life!

  • Max

    Very impressive!

    Never been there (done that), and your article gives a kind objective insight which serves to take some of the scare away from doing time; I love Holmgrens principles for structuring an article, evaluation etc.

    I’d love to meet you some day and hear more about what you’re getting out of your concentrated study time…

  • Hello fellow blogger! I’m rather new to blogs but I just wanted to say that I enjoyed your blog here about Permaculture Two; It kept me engrossed all the way to the end! Keep up the fine work… I’m always hoping to learn more about Permaculture Farming.