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  • Ecology Behind Bars:A Teaching Garden Cultivates Free Minds
  • Kirsten K. Coe (bio)

As a biologist in the natural sciences, one of the most important aspects of my own education and training was the ability to spend course time outdoors: it allowed me to engage directly with the material I was learning and develop a strong understanding of the patterns and processes shaping natural systems. Now, as a post-secondary educator, I have found that the value of exposure to natural phenomena is quantitatively measurable in students’ ability to learn and communicate course material. Learning biology while isolated from nature is nearly impossible. The conventional manner in which biology courses are taught in most universities includes very limited exposure to natural systems. Teaching biology using extensive outdoor time is radical in a broad educational context because it is a dramatic shift away from common practices and fundamentally affects and improves the way students learn. In the context of post-secondary education in the prison system, the radicalism of outdoor coursework is even greater because, for incarcerated students, the freedom to be outside is already one of their denied (or regimentally-controlled) rights. The use of outdoor learning environments is an unconventional teaching methodology that can completely change the way science is taught, learned, and perceived in the carceral system.

Coursework in the natural sciences is required of incarcerated students pursuing advanced degrees. In spite of the importance of exposure to nature in meeting the educational goals of such courses, the tremendous constraints on educational tools and facilities in prisons results in science courses that are entirely lecture-based. Incarcerated students learning biology seldom have the opportunity to interact directly with subject matter because they never leave the classroom. This impedes students’ ability to learn in an already challenging educational environment. In [End Page 56] 2011, I designed and taught a course on Ecology (the study of the relationships between organisms and their environment) through the Cornell Prison Education Program (CPEP) that set the precedent for a change to this common and accepted framework.

In the summer of 2011, 21 students at Auburn Maximum Security Prison registered for the second iteration of my Ecology course. The previous year, I had initiated a project to transform an unused 50 × 100 foot green space into a teaching garden and field site for the course. This fenced-off area was situated on the perimeter of the facility, directly adjacent to the 40 foot high exterior cement walls, where it had housed aging construction vehicles and discarded building materials in a sea of undisturbed ground and exotic weeds. It took eight months for the New York State Department of Corrections (NYSDOC) to approve the project, but with the help of three master gardener volunteers, four former CPEP Ecology students excused from prison duties one day a week (for whom garden work as well as their participation in the Cornell program overall were contingent on a positive disciplinary record), hundreds of donated plants, and some good luck and extensive negotiation at the security gates to bring in garden tools, we transformed this neglected space to create the first ever educational garden to be used for natural science coursework in a prison system.

Our first day out in the garden as an Ecology class was one of the most memorable days of my life, and one my students will likely never forget. Just walking out of the classrooms of the prison school building (which reminded me of an overly-supervised yet underfunded inner-city middle school), through numerous security gates, into our own natural space gave me a sense of freedom as an instructor: I felt liberated to teach on my own terms, using the natural world before me as a new set of educational tools. My students were excited in a way I had not yet seen in the classroom. If a small taste of freedom was possible within the prison walls, I think they experienced it then. As almost the entirety of the prison grounds is paved in asphalt, it was true that until that moment, many of my students had not walked on grass for over 10 years.

One of my chief objectives for...