By Julia Di Simone
“The landscape in here, the environment in here is sterile, stressful. You know, everything is hard,” Johnny Cofer shared with The Oregonian, referring to life at Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP). “It kind of makes us feel like we need to be hard too, to survive in here.” To bring a natural healing space to Oregon State Penitentiary’s grounds, Cofer and OSP’s Asian Pacific Family Club proposed building a Japanese Healing Garden in the prison yard.
We may take it for granted that after a long day spent working indoors, we can step out onto the quad or walk to the Riverfront Park to appreciate the peace of mind nature can bring. However, for the hundreds of prisoners at OSP, who live just a mile away from campus down State Street, access to the outdoors is restricted and regulated, not to mention completely inaccessible while in solitary confinement. The prison yard, which constitutes the outdoors while incarcerated, is devoid of natural beauty. Thus, for the past four years, members of Asian Pacific Family Club (APFC), the Veterans Club, the Lifers club and their partners on the outside have navigated bureaucracy, safety, security regulations and funding challenges to make this Healing Garden a reality.
Renowned Japanese garden designer Hoichi Kurisu, who designed the Portland Japanese Garden, is lending his expertise to this project. Kurisu has donated $80,000 worth of work and materials to create a space where prisoners can connect with nature and themselves. When Kurisu spoke in Hudson Hall on Feb. 11, he described his visit to OSP to meet with the project’s organizers. Despite the group’s worries that the project would hit insurmountable roadblocks along the way, together they envisioned a living garden thriving around the existing Veterans’ memorial which has been on OSP’s grounds since 2014. Kurisu says the Healing Garden will provide healthy distraction for visitors by immersing them in their senses of touch, taste, hearing, smell and memory. Kurisu’s design will include a wooden gate where visitors can leave behind any hatred as they enter, a koi pond and small waterfall to enjoy and a wooden bridge to help visitors step into a new era as they cross the water.
Kurisu remarked that he never imagined his work could end up in a prison, but that this project is connected to a wider history of creating transformative spaces while living in confinement. Japanese Americans incarcerated by the U.S. government in concentration camps in the 1940s built Japanese Healing Gardens to celebrate and uphold their personhood and wellbeing.
Though OSP is geographically closer to our campus than the I-5, prisoners are kept invisible from the rest of society. Many of us may never meet these people, but we can still recognize our shared need for a dedicated space to decompress from the stress of the day. Johnny Cofer shared with Oregon Public Broadcasting that life in prison “creates a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress. To me, this will be the first place where it’s all-inclusive, where everyone can go there, of any culture, of any power structure, staff, inmates. We can all go there and feel some sense of safety, some sense of peace. In this type of place, that’s almost unheard of.”
Melissa Michaux, project partner and professor of politics and women and gender studies here at Willamette, shared that the Healing Garden is close to reaching its funding goal. Members of the APFC have been collecting donations through grants, donations from outside partners and inside prison from fellow prisoners who make extremely limited, if any, incomes while incarcerated. Additionally, artists within APFC are selling their incredible artwork to raise funds. If the project’s funding needs are met in the coming weeks, construction of the Healing Garden will begin this spring, becoming the first restorative Japanese garden ever built inside a U.S. prison.
As a community, we know how valuable it is to walk home from class amongst swaying redwood trees and skittering gray squirrels. When school gets stressful, we can take refuge in a trip to Zena Farm or a hike with the Outdoor Program to escape. Let’s help the OSP community break ground on their Healing Garden this Spring. Visit http://nakasec.org/garden to donate.