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Unexpected gardens grow hope inside detention facilities

People who’ve served time in prison often face big obstacles when they get out. But there are several programs in San Diego county that aim to help make that transition easier, one that’s using gardening.

There are expansive nurseries and vegetable gardens in places you might not expect: the men's East Mesa Reentry Facility in Otay Mesa and at the women's Las Colinas Detention and Reentry Facility in Santee. The people caring for the plants and vegetables are inmates with less than six months left in their sentences. During the time they spend at those centers, they’re just students learning the art of horticulture, landscaping and farm-to-table sustainable growing.

"See, it rooted. Amazing, right?" 38-year-old Pemberton Tran marveled over succulents he'd grown from dead leaves. Tran is a student in the Community Involved Vocational Incarcerated Crew Services or CIVICS, and has become quite the expert in succulents. He explained the process: "So what I'm doing is since I'm reproducing, right, you clearly see the roots growing, and I’ll cut the end of the other leaf and then I’ll just repot it."

Over at Las Colinas, 20-year-old Breeana was showing off tomato plants. "These are very, very sweet, and there's nothing better than tasting something right off the vine or from the soil," she said.


Breeana asked that her last name not be used as she prepares to leave Las Colinas. She said she now thinks of herself as a farmer, a title she'd never considered before even though she is from the Coachella Valley, an area known for its vast agricultural land. "Never, would I have thought — but I'm very glad that I am," she said with a proud smile and giggle.

Spending time nurturing the plants gives her time to reflect. That time has given her perspective. "When you spend a lot of time growing something and committing to it you start thinking about other things in your life and it just makes me feel really appreciative," she said.

Francisco Quinteros is a supervising correctional counselor with the program. He said they’re growing more than plants here. "We’re investing in people here … so it’s just really rewarding helping individuals who never got a chance in life and now we’re equipping them with the proper tools necessary to not come back."

Tran can't believe he's become so skilled in such a short amount of time, and this peaceful greenhouse is a sharp contrast to a life he’s healing from. "No, this is all new to me, I’m a combat veteran, you know and a recovering addict … and I came back feeling suicidal, feeling guilt ... feeling really, really down and out and I felt like no one understood," he said. "It has been pretty much a safe haven for me to learn something new to rehabilitate and work on recovering."

This program is a partnership between the San Diego Sheriff’s Department and the San Diego County Parks and Recreation Department. When inmates complete the program, not only will they have the know-how and certification, they'll also have connections to land a job.


Tran said in an odd way it’s given him freedom — not just in custody, but on the outside too. "This is an option, we got to have options, you know," he said. "When, I step out that door, at least I know I have an avenue of seeking employment."

"When you have something really good, I think that you just want to share it," said Breeana. She plans to take what she learned and give back to her community.

"We have a community garden in Desert Hot Springs," she said. "I don’t know how it’s doing right now, but I would really love to do something and show what I learned."

Her favorite thing to grow? "I really like the flowers because the flowers are super resilient because they grow and they die and they just come right back." A perfect metaphor for second chances — exactly what this program provides.

"When you fall, I think that you should always get back up," Breeana said. "I think that getting back up isn’t just, 'Okay I’m going to try it again.' No, it’s you’re going to find something that works for you. And I think that this works for me cause it makes me mindful and it makes me genuinely happy."

Bridget Wright, the reentry supervisor at Las Colinas, said hearing that gives her hope. "Incredibly validating that what we’re doing is working," Wright said. "We're here to offer them ... opportunities to grow and invest in themselves for their future success."

And opportunities to share. Tran said his mom would try to get him to garden with her. He didn't before, but now, he’s looking forward to giving her a hug and a hand in the backyard.

"I only have my mom left ... my dad passed away last year ... I think this experience right here was meant to be, so when I get released I’ll be able to spend more quality time with her ... . Maybe I can teach her a few things or maybe she can teach me a few things," he said with a big smile and laugh.

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