PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — University of Wisconsin-Platteville students recently helped facilitate the final session of a series of restorative justice gardening courses with more than 15 inmates at the Prairie du Chien Correctional Institution in Prairie du Chien, Wis. The students are enrolled in the Victimology and Restorative Justice course, taught by Dr. Amy Nemmetz, assistant professor of criminal justice at UW-Platteville.
Restorative justice is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior. It is accomplished through cooperative processes that include the victim, the offender, family members of the victim and the offender as well as members of the community. Through restorative justice programs, the voices of victims can be heard and offenders take responsibility for their actions while taking steps to repair the harm they caused.
From Feb. 11-May 6, 25 students helped facilitate 12 lessons that promoted gardening, vocational, communication, networking and reintegration skills for the inmates. Students emphasized the principles of restorative justice, including victim impact, the ripple effect of crime and giving back to the community. They also emphasized the importance of community service and preparing for reintegration into society.
The gardening project sessions were led by Brittany Fitzgerald, a senior criminal justice major from Orfordville, Wis. “My experience at PDCI has been one of the best opportunities I could have asked for from UW-Platteville,” said Fitzgerald. “It has opened my eyes to the amazing work of restorative justice and the power that it can have on people. The openness and respect that we had in our discussion circles at the prison has changed my perspective on how I look at a lot of things. I will definitely bring restorative justice to wherever I go in my career.”
Throughout the 12 weeks, Fitzgerald, with the assistance of the other students, taught units on the benefits of gardening, site selection, soil, selection of seed varieties, insect and pest control, plant pathology, weeds, composting, indoor and small spaces, selections for home gardens, preservation and community gardening.
At the final session in early May, inmates and students read the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a document that outlines the rights that may be enforced by crime victims or their lawful representation. Following, the inmates and students sat in a circle and discussed which victims’ rights would be most important to them if they were victims, which victim’s rights the criminal justice system needs to devote more attention to and which victims’ rights their victims probably needed the most following the crime. The inmates also reviewed information about community gardens and some made drawings of personal or community gardens they hoped to plant and tend someday.
At the conclusion of the session, inmates shared their thoughts about how the restorative justice gardening project had impacted them. Some of the comments included:
“This restorative justice gardening project has given me a new perspective on the importance of building community relationships, healthy foods and regaining the communities’ trust. There is an old adage that says, ‘It takes a village to raise a child,’ but it also takes a community of people with common interest to live in harmony. I would like to bring a community garden to my neighborhood.”
“The metaphor of ‘planting seeds’ in an actual garden and seeing everyday relationships as social/communal gardens where we plant seeds will stick with me the most. It will be a constant reminder of the fact that all relationships are cultivated, just as all gardens are cultivated.”
“I liked the different ways a person can use gardening in life, like planting a seed and starting life over, (and) the different ways it can help change a person. It opened my eyes on a new way to give back to my town, family, (and) kids.”
“It made me realize that I need to change my outlook and I need to give back to my community by volunteering my time to help others. Now I know how to bring people together for the common good and (use) the pay-it-forward process to keep people looking ahead to the future. I am very ambitious about my recovery and how I am connected to everything around me. I have a choice to nourish the positive in my life.”
“I was impressed with the UW-Platteville students’ dedication to this project, especially Brittany,” said Lisa Pettera, program supervisor at PDCI. “She really put a lot of time into adding creative gardening activities to the curriculum which provided great learning opportunities for the inmates. I was surprised how well this experience reinforced restorative justice principles for them. All of these men will be returning home in the near future, and it’s so important they understand the full impact of their criminal behavior. This exposure provides a path to becoming productive members of their communities.”
“The inmates’ ability to connect gardening principles to their personal experiences has been remarkable,” said Nemmetz. “For example, the inmates recognized that there are people and situations that can truly ruin them. More specifically, making good choices about ‘who’ to associate with is essential. This analogy can be linked to weeds and invasive species in a garden. On a realistic note, picking up gardening skills is also a win-win for their future communities; growing flowers and vegetables provides opportunities to give community members something tangible and good.”
Nemmetz said that the students who participated in the courses have been amazed by the inmates’ critical thinking skills and thirst for knowledge and skills.
The gardening courses were a collaborative effort between UW-Platteville, PDCI and the Ridge and Valley Restorative Justice Program, which works with victims, offenders and community members in Crawford, Grant, Vernon and other area counties to provide support and facilitate services that promote healing and reconciliation. They are a component of PDCI’s “Reflection Garden Project,” the 12-week course for which inmates can receive a certificate of completion.
The gardening and restorative justice curriculum was written by Matt Lochowitz, a recent graduate of the undergraduate criminal justice program at UW-Platteville, and Keith Lucas, a graduate student pursuing a Master of Science in criminal justice at UW-Platteville, via work with the Ridge and Valley Restorative Justice program at PDCI.
The program at PDCI was made possible with the support of the Pioneer Academic Center for Community Engagement, a UW-Platteville initiative and funding source for campus-wide coordination, integration and leadership of community-based scholarship of engagement projects and internships that involve students, faculty, staff and community partners. Students presented their restorative justice gardening experiences at the PACCE Engagement Poster Day in late April.
As UW-Platteville pursues its vision of being recognized as the leading student-focused university for its success in achieving excellence, creating opportunities and empowering each individual, it is guided by four strategic planning priorities. The restorative justice gardening courses align with three of the priorities, including providing an outstanding education, fostering a community of achievement and respect and enriching the tri-state region.
Written by: Laurie Hamer, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191, firstname.lastname@example.org