PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Twenty-five students from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville are helping facilitate 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, students are helping facilitate 12 lessons that promote gardening, vocational, communication, networking and reintegration skills for the inmates. Students emphasize the principles of restorative justice, including victim impact, the ripple effect of crime and giving back to the community. They also emphasize the importance of community service and preparing for reintegration into society.
Students will teach 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.
The gardening courses are a collaborative effort between UW-Platteville, PDCI and 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.
“Restorative justice includes a community component,” said Nemmetz. “There are opportunities for offenders to contribute positively to a community that may have previously been negatively affected by an offender’s actions. Students and inmates can use the gardening curriculum as an opportunity to link a skill to opportunities to give back to the community. For example, planting one packet of cucumber seeds in a home garden could provide enough cucumbers to donate to a local food pantry, neighbors, or families in need. Additionally, there are several opportunities to tie gardening concepts to restorative justice concepts. For example, a small seed can grow into something magnificent with a lot of care and deliberate steps.”
“Using this analogy, we can propose that offenders can choose to simply serve their sentences and move back into their communities without ever considering the impact of their past actions,” said Nemmetz. “Or, the offenders can take deliberate steps to recognize the harm they have caused their victims, families and communities, and strive to repair that harm via deliberate steps such as acknowledging the harm and apologizing, volunteering their time for community projects and speaking to at risk teens.”
“The gardening courses are teaching the inmates new skills they can offer back to the communities they left behind when they were incarcerated,” said Brittany Fitzgerald, a senior criminal justice major at UW-Platteville from Orfordville, Wis., who is leading the gardening project sessions at PDCI. “Working in a community garden will give them the confidence they need to make amends for what they have done and show the people in their communities they are trying to give back. I am passionate about restorative justice and hope to use it in my career once I graduate.”
“The gardening class is structured so that restorative justice remains a theme throughout each lesson, along with basic skills for non-gardeners,” said Lisa Pettera, program supervisor at PDCI. “The increase in community gardens seems like a perfect opportunity for offenders returning home to provide a valuable service to their communities. And it may even lead to building relationships with positive role models that could result in job references or job networking.”
“The inmates were excited to learn and to be able to bring their new gardening skills home to their families once they get released,” said Rachel Evett, a junior criminal justice major at UW-Platteville from Rockford, Ill. “They were also excited to learn how gardening can be an activity to help them reintegrate themselves back into their communities.”
Before beginning the lessons, students participated in a question and answer session with an inmate panel and tour of PDCI, which helped them understand what circumstances and situations led to the inmates’ entry into the correctional setting.
“The restorative justice curriculum at PDCI is a win-win for our criminal justice students,” said Nemmetz. “We’ve discussed the principles of restorative justice in class: restoration (repairing harm), accountability (addressing the responsibility for the harm), and engagement (inviting those impacted by the harm to take part in the process). The students are excited for the opportunity to help inmates feel the power of restorative justice. We are so grateful to PDCI for this opportunity.”
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 will present their restorative justice gardening experiences at the PACCE Engagement Poster Day on April 29.
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