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Comparative Penology

Institute of Criminology

Gardening, growth and deep-end confinement

In my book, The Prisoner Society, I noted that the prison ‘was a place of mirth and warmth as well as misery’ (2009: 334). In a number of other publications, I have tried to highlight practices and pockets in prisons that enable forms of hope and humanity. These shards of sunlight can be found even at the terminus of the prison system.

One of the four sub-studies that comprise our research project is an exploration of the ‘deep-end’ of each prison system. In England and Wales, this means the Close Supervision System, which holds men considered too dangerous to manage elsewhere within the prison estate. The four main CSC units are located within high-security prisons, in small units that are completely socially isolated from the main establishment. Two of the CSC units (Whitemoor and Full Sutton) are more open than the others (Woodhill and Wakefield). In both, prisoners are out of their cells for most of the day, and are able to mix freely, albeit within an environment that is very tightly controlled and monitored. One of the ironies of the CSC system – something to which prisoners attest very consistently — is that, while in most ways they are hugely constrained, in other respects they are given more freedom and more access to staff than they would have on a normal wing in a high-security establishment.

In Whitemoor and Full Sutton, one indication of this freedom is the possibility of growing plants and vegetables, in both cases in the unit’s outdoor space. In Full Sutton, almost half of the tarmac outside the CSC building, including one of the two exercise yards, is covered with greenhouses and pots containing plants and flowers. The contrast between the grey and austere exterior - whose roof is covered with a thick, wire mesh, so that an uninterrupted view of the sky is impossible - and the colour and vibrancy of the plantation is extremely striking. 

Among the edible goods grown here are carrots, courgettes, cauliflowers, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, squash, onions, pears, apples, cherries, thyme and basil. And since CSC prisoners in Full Sutton have access to a small kitchen (as they do in the unit in Whitemoor), the availability of these vegetables and herbs represents a significant life enhancement. As one prisoner commented, there was significant fulfilment in ‘seeing stuff grow from nothing to being on your plate’. A second benefit for prisoners is that the view from their windows is not the normal drab vista of concrete and wire. But, perhaps more importantly, gardening and horticulture are activities that give meaning to men whose predicament is otherwise quite desperate, as conveyed in the following quotation, from an interview with a prisoner in Whitemoor CSC:

If you could improve life in here what are the three things that you think could, that are realistic, that could improve the quality of life for you?

Just having access to more meaningful activities, wherever you can get people motivated to do courses so you can benefit your future prospects,  …  the same as gardening, we’ve got amazing garden facilities outside for people... like last year we grew our own vegetables, done it all in the greenhouse. If you can get on here a professional to do some basic courses with you in gardening … I had a massive interest in that and it’s the first time I’ve had access to that in prison, I was really, really impressed with the fact that out in the garden I’m planting seeds and watching them grow, it’s quite therapeutic as well. ... if you’re in prison you never see like trees and things like that, so coming here and being able to plant vegetables and being able to pick them, that’s a massive thing.

My colleague Alison Liebling has commented that gardeners in prison grow not just plants but people. Although one of my interviewees was dismissive of my attempt to suggest a parallel between the growth that he was cultivating and his own development, I find it hard not to think that there is something about nurturing a living organism, about its steady but unpredictable growth, and about aiding its progression towards vibrancy, colour and flavour that develops the person as well as the plant.

Dr Ben Crewe leads the COMPEN team and is Deputy Director of the Prisons Research Centre, Institute of Criminology, University of Cambridge.


logo The Comparative Penology Group is led by Dr Ben Crewe and his research team who, since 2016, have been working on a five-year project titled: 'Penal policymaking and the prisoner experience: a comparative analysis'.

The research is based in England & Wales, and Norway, and involves four inter-related studies of (a) penal policymaking and the penal field (b) the experience of entry into and release from custody (c) the daily experiences of female prisoners and imprisoned sex offenders, and (d) prisoners in the most secure parts of each jurisdiction's prison system.

This project is funded by the European Research Council (ERC).









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