Inside the East Oakland Botanical Arboretum, this breaks the cycle of imprisonment

Inside the East Oakland Botanical Arboretum, this breaks the cycle of imprisonment

Luis Sr. Ortega mulches and repots the nursery plants, which are sourced as cuttings from Planting Justice's “mother” farm in El Sobrante. (Courtesy of Berhon Quizpe, Cultivating Justice)

Walking into Planting Justice's East Oakland nursery feels like walking into an urban oasis.

Its grounds, in the Sobrante Park neighborhood, are a patchwork of multicolored plants. Rows of fruit trees — apples, figs, Asian pears, European pears, Japanese plums, pomegranates, jujubes, quince, loquats and more — fill the space. It is difficult to even walk in a straight line. From this two-acre plot, Planting Justice sells more than 1,100 varieties of plants — many of which are hard to find, suitable for a range of climates — and ships them across the continental United States. Sometimes demand exceeds nursery capacity. But beyond its thriving plant business, Planting Justice is using its nursery as a tool for social change — to end the cycle of incarceration.

“No one got our re-entry program that mixes soil, return, recovery and good wages,” says Len Vidal, director of operations. The nonprofit, founded in 2009, has employed more than 40 people transitioning out of prison so far, many of whom are in foster care. So far, the organization has seen a 2 percent recidivism rate, compared to 50 percent statewide, according to Vidal.

Clockwise from top left: Planting Justice's Sobrante Park Arboretum; The flags that decorate its lands. Sol Mercado takes care of the plants. (Courtesy of Sol Mercado)

Near the entrance, blue-style flags hung, some made from orange prison uniforms — all printed with messages like “Build Parks, Not Jails” and “Hawthorn, Not Handcuffs.” A greenhouse appears from around the corner, and a gray cat wanders among the garden beds. Employees graft, plant, tend, and harvest, and the nursery is buzzing with energy and action. Most cuttings are sourced from Planting Justice's 4-acre “mother” farm in El Sobrante; Then they come here to mature and be shipped off to their new lives.

Sol Mercado, reentry coordinator, says the organization meets the needs of formerly incarcerated people during a “very critical period” of transition. I've experienced this firsthand. Mercado first encountered justice farming through a prison gardening program. “I was weeding, I was pruning and watering, and I was able to have that time to really think and process what led me to commit my crime, how I want to heal, and how I never could,” Mercado says. “I want to be the same person again when I get out of here.”

Mercado was released three years ago at age 35, after 16 years in prison, and began working for Planting Justice almost immediately. “Being here, working, and feeling stable has helped me a lot to organize my life,” Mercado says. The Justice Transplant “gave me the opportunity to be the person I wanted to be.”

From left: trees planted by Yennefer Kopto and Adela Flores; Simon Robinson is among the staff who care for, grow and ship more than 1,100 species of plants. (Courtesy of Cultivation Justice)

In addition to its nursery work, Planting Justice teaches youth gardening and food sovereignty, and distributes free fresh produce and trees to local communities. She has also helped local neighborhoods establish more than 450 community gardens, and previously worked in a prison gardening program. It is also building a hydroponic nursery farm in East Oakland and a pay-what-you-can café.

For many employees, this work is personal. “I grew up here, I've been here forever, I'm fourth or fifth generation here,” says Kovon Page, Aquaponics Nursery Farm manager. His hopes for the organization: “For this place to run on its own and be able to continue to employ people from this community and give them a wage that they can actually live in without having to struggle.”

Interstate 880 is just south of the arboretum, and the noise of cars and the occasional helicopter is constant. “A lot of crime happens there, like shootings, and it affects us a lot,” Page says. The solution, Mercado and others on the task force say, is to find “permanent fixes” to provide resources for the Sobrante Park community.

Cultivating justice offers one way forward. Vidal says the organization provides resources and agency to community members, a model that many employees hope can be replicated in other areas. “Cultivating justice is the future, in my estimation, and it starts one community at a time,” Vidal says.

    (Tags for translation)California Native Plants

You may also like...

Leave a Reply