Students teach restorative justice gardening course

July 12, 2018

PLATTEVILLE, Wis. — Three University of Wisconsin-Platteville students and their instructor recently proved that teaching gardening skills can do more than help people learn how to grow vegetables – it can have a life-changing impact on those who are teaching the skills as well as those who are learning the skills.

For most of the spring 2018 semester, Shannon Childress, Rachel Cook and Marissa Halverson, all junior criminal justice students, planned and facilitated “Growing Community,” a 12-week restorative justice gardening program for 10 inmates at the Department of Corrections, Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, or WSPF, in Boscobel, Wisconsin.

Students were enrolled in the Directed Individual Studies course, facilitated by Robin Cline, lecturer of criminal justice at UW-Platteville and psychological associate at the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. The gardening program was initiated as a joint effort between Cline and Trina Kroening-Skime, program director at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, and was conducted in collaboration with the students.

The course curriculum was a unique combination of basic gardening knowledge, such as site selection, plant pathology and pest control, and activities woven within a curriculum of restorative justice, a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused by criminal behavior.

The practical lessons and hands-on activities surrounding the gardening content provided a tactile experience for the men as well as many metaphors for life lessons. For example, one lesson focused on weeds and allowed the men to discuss how some things in their lives need to be intentionally removed in order to allow other areas the necessary space to flourish.

“The basic gardening information can be utilized in the future to give back to their communities, whether it be in sharing what they grow or volunteering at a community garden,” said Cline. “Gardening is a healthy hobby which offers potential opportunities to develop healthy relations with your neighbors and community as a whole. The classes, like volunteering in a community garden, were an opportunity for men to practice soft jobs skills and social interactions as well as challenge their own belief structures and perceptions of others’ experiences.”

The content and conversations surrounding restorative justice were thought-provoking, often asking the men to consider who had been affected by their choices and how. An additional goal of the program was to empower inmates to see themselves as ex-offenders and to begin to mend bridges and to look forward to healing their relationships with their families, communities and themselves.

Facilitating the Growing Community class made a deep impact on the students, providing them with a new perspective on those who are incarcerated.

Childress said five things she learned were patience, empathy, restorative justice, gardening and a new outlook on prisons. “Hearing all of their stories made me realize not all criminals are bad and we should not judge them on their crimes,” she said. “I learned how to look at inmates as people. I learned that the most unexpected people are capable of change.”

Cook agreed, adding, “The biggest take-away for me was realizing that the men were human, just like you and me. Even though I was in a room full of criminals who had committed many crimes like dealing drugs, murder and participating in armed burglary, I felt like I could communicate with them like they were friends. TV and social media make inmates out to be nasty creatures, but in reality, they are just people who have made poor decisions in life. By the end of the 13 weeks, they were so eager to learn, and they participated with all of our discussion questions, even when they were hard and touched some sensitive topics.”

Halverson noted that the class not only helped open the inmates’ minds but also opened hers. “Through each week, I learned more and more about ways to help others and about giving back to my own community,” she said. “I also learned how I want to make a difference in the Department of Corrections. The last thing I learned was that no matter where we come from, our past, who was there for us or who wasn’t, we are all the same, at the core. We had 14 people in a circle who all had different opinions and views, but everything still went smoothly. It was a life lesson, from how the inmates learned, and how I did as well. We may all be different, but that’s not a bad thing; rather, it’s a good thing to help each other when times are good or bad.”

Facilitating the program also provided students with insight, knowledge and skills that they can use in their future careers.

“Once I graduate, I want to be a correctional officer at the Department of Corrections,” said Childress. “I can use this experience in my future job because in class, the inmates told us how they feel about correctional officers, and I can apply what they told me. I will treat them with respect and I will get respect back.”

“This experience has already helped me with my career,” said Cook, who works at a halfway house for adult male offenders. “My experience teaching this class with the inmates has helped me feel more comfortable with my new job. I thought that working at the halfway house was going to be intimidating, but since I was used to going into the prison, the halfway house was nothing compared to that. My boss thought it was very cool that I had experience working with inmates, and that helped me get hired. Now that I know more about restorative justice and the circle process, I will use that going into my career.”

“I will use this experience in everything I do, from the time I graduate until I retire,” said Halverson. “Having good communications with people is huge in today’s world. Being able to adapt to situations you were not ready for, on the spot, without thinking. Being able to use the lessons and experiences I have learned to open my own mind to things I never thought about, and then spreading my knowledge and what I have learned onto others in the world and people who surround me. Teaching people that not everyone in prison is a cold-hearted killer and that people make mistakes, but with a little support from the community or family, everything can change.”

Feedback that inmates provided at the completion of the gardening program indicated that not only did the program change their perspectives about gardening and restorative justice, but it also gave them knowledge and skills that will be useful to them in the future too. Feedback included:

  • “What’s true in gardening is also true in life. To improve in any area, all I need to do is get rid of the sprouts of harmful plants. I learned the benefits of community gardening and how my crime and crime in general affects a multitude of people in many ways.”
  • “All information that offers economic relief or social fortitude and can be passed on is useful. I’m looking at the prospects of composting, gardening and food waste removal.”
  • “I had thought that gardening was for ‘old people’ but now I see gardening in a whole new perspective. There’s something noble about getting (out) what you put ‘into’ the earth.”
  • “Before I took the class, I didn’t believe I would actually learn anything meaningful. However, I was proved wrong. I learned to trust people and open up and share experiences in a group setting.”

High-impact practices, such planning and implementing restorative justice programming, are an important component of UW-Platteville’s 2017-18 strategic work plan, which includes the institutional priorities of improving student learning, data-informed decision making, budgeting and planning, supporting student success through retention and recruitment initiatives, and campus climate.

Written by: Laurie A. Hamer, University Relations Specialist, College of Liberal Arts and Education, 608-342-6191,, in collaboration with Robin Cline, adjunct lecturer, Department of Criminal Justice


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