Correctional Horticulture in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation

By Uma Nicole, IAE Contractor

March 2021

The Mojave Desert Seed Rehabilitative Training Project (Mojave DSRT) is in its second year at the California City Correctional Facility (CAC) in California City, California.

Despite the heavy COVID-19 restrictions imposed at the municipal and state levels, growing native plants to help restore habitat for the desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii) has been successful. The remaining participants from the first year have requested to be a part of the second year, and share their skills while performing plant tending, seed collecting, and data collection to ensure the world is a better place and that ecological balance is being restored.

Year two is just beginning, and the Bureau of Land Management has graced this program with some additional native seed. Desert perennials that were grown in containers last year have just been planted in the field at California City Correctional Facility.  Seeds have been sown again in containers, with Mojave DSRT crew's caring stewardship, and California City Correctional Facility staff, including the Warden.  New additional seed has been ordered because the Warden would like to expand the project and continue to give work to those who would appreciate the capacity and diversity of such correctional programming efforts.

Mojave DSRT crew showing their pride using rocks removed from the field.

Mojave DSRT crew member watering newly sown seeds in the nursery.

From the outside, no one would guess that California City Correctional Facility was in the middle of quarantine, with efforts to provide COVID-19 injections to staff and the incarcerated population, by looking at the burgeoning nursery!  In 2020, the first year of the program, the following species were grown to boost the seed bank for threatened desert tortoise habitat restoration:


1. Desert needlegrass (Achnatherum/Stipa speciosum)

2. Desert pepperweed (Lepidium fremontii)

3. Desert marigold (Baileya multiradiata)

4. East Mojave Buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)


5. Smooth Desert Dandelion (Malacothrix glabrata)

6. Desert Indianwheat (Plantago ovata)

7. Chia (Salvia columbariae)

In addition to the surviving perennials from last year, the following species will be grown from new seed in 2021:

Mojave Aster (Xylorhiza tortifolia)

Chia (Salvia columbariae)

Desert Indianwheat (Plantago ovata)

Desert Needlegrass (Achnatherum speciosum)

Native Mojave Desert plants in production inside California City Correctional Facility

Mojave woody aster (Xylorhiza tortifolia) (Creative Commons)

Desert globe mallow (Sphaeralcea ambigua) (Native Plants to the Mojave Desert)

Mojave DSRT crew member with pots of Desert Indianwheat (Plantago ovata) in the plant nursery.

Mojave DSRT Crew creating windbreaks around plants in the field.

The popularity of growing plants in the form of correctional horticulture has expanded in recent years, and the social, mental, and physical benefits have been well established in academia and community organizations. Interestingly enough, the offsets of allowing a prison garden program to grow more than edible fruits and vegetables not only offsets institutional costs and serves food-insecure communities, it also has contributed to serving and restoring the nonhuman world. Concepts of ecopsychology paired with the long-standing wealth of knowledge contained in Indigenous Science decenter the impossibility of thorough and deep-reaching rehabilitation efforts in the form of doing good through beneficial opportunities between incarcerated growers and the desert communities that we are working towards restoring.  Educational projects such as the Mojave Desert Seed Rehabilitative Training Project (DSRT) between the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and its contractors continue to offer unique opportunities of compassionate empowerment.

While growing plants using a carefully selected crew at the California City Correctional Facility in California City, California, provides immediate benefits including the supportive self-esteem necessary to shape an experience that blooms from the experience of “giving back"; there are much deeper implications for correctional programming that yearn to be discussed.

The adaptability shown by the Institute for Applied Ecology staff, the CDCR staff, its adults in custody, and contractors will only continue to ensure this incredibly special program’s continuance. We thank the Bureau of Land Management, the Institute for Applied Ecology’s staff, and its local contractor, Urban Community Garden Collective Los Angeles (UCGC-LA), for the energy, time, and care put into the program. Recent requests have included an interesting array of germination knowledge to the USFS Bend Seed Lab, and a curious method of germinating and cultivating Mojave Desert plants known as “fire-followers,” which are necessary for post-fire restoration efforts in other elevation bands within the Mojave Desert!

Posted in Ecological Education Program, Sustainability in Prisons Project and tagged , , , , , .