Mothers behind bars nurture relationships with visitors in this unusual prison garden

The leaves are rustling. You can hear children kicking the ball and plinking keys on a toy xylophone. People are laughing and talking.

Imagine a prison. We did, and then we made these visions a reality. The playscape and garden we created at Iowa Correctional Institution for Women are changing how incarcerated mothers spend time with family, friends, and children.

The new outdoor area was described as “home” by respondents to our recent study. The design-build team, which included Iowa State University students as well as incarcerated females and staff from ICIW, created a place where imprisoned women could forget about their identities as inmates. Instead, they can step into their roles as grandmothers or mothers.

It isn’t easy to maintain contact with family members

Prisoners must deal with isolation, cramped quarters, a loss of identity, and being separated from their loved ones. Prisons tend to be stark, devoid of any color or living plants. Prison visits can be a great way to ease the situation.

It is difficult for many incarcerated individuals to keep in touch with their loved ones, particularly children. These bonds are an important component of a successful return after release. The prison visiting room is often cold and condemning and a place where mothers and their children meet for the first time after the trauma that led them to be incarcerated. Security officers, inmates, and visitors are also present.

But only if the children are willing to make the long and difficult journey. However, it is impossible to visit the children of parents who are incarcerated due to financial and logistical reasons. Caregivers may be concerned about the conditions in which they would be bringing their children.

Why is it important? More than 5 million children have had a parent in prison. Forty-eight percent of women in federal prisons and 55 percent in state prisons have children under 18. Children with incarcerated parents have a higher risk of becoming confined themselves, having mental health issues, and not performing well in school. These children also display a variety of behavioral problems and may feel abandoned or ashamed.

My students and I began working at the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women (Iowa Correctional Institution for Women) in 2011 with the seemingly simple task of beautifying the grounds. The warden wanted inmates to be calm. Both goals were interconnected – I am happy to say that we have achieved both.

From the beginning, I felt that one project was most important – creating an outdoor nurturing space where mothers can build and maintain these incredibly valuable relationships with their kids.

Add nature to prison walls.

Researchers have found that natural settings can reduce stress and provide other psychological benefits.

The original outdoor space was made of bricks and razor wire. My team, as landscape architects, used environment psychology and therapy landscape to design passive and active spaces that are surrounded by gardens. We wanted to use the benefits of nature in order to improve relationships between a prisoner and her family.

Participatory Design honored the desires and needs of the women incarcerated by including them in the design team as the most knowledgeable. Residents and their children visited the garden with play dough and pencils in hand. They described exactly what they wanted. A garden that looked and felt like a home.

The finished garden has a circular walkway wide enough to accommodate two tricycles or wheelchairs. The tulip spinning equipment is a great way to let kids release their energy, and it’s also a good conversation starter for passersby. We have installed more comfortable seating so that residents and visitors alike can enjoy the natural distraction of colorful plants, rustling leaves of Quaking Aspen, and other brightly colored foliage.

On a Saturday afternoon, we saw a family arrive to see Mom. The children hugged her warmly while the teenager kept his arms crossed and remained silent. As they walked into the garden, Mom gave him some space and then started to talk.

We watched with amazement as their body language went from tense and apprehensive to accepting. They even started talking. The visit ended with warmth, which every mother and her child need from each other.

What moms and children say about the new space

In order to learn more about how the garden has affected incarcerated woman and their visitors, my colleagues BarbToews & Amy Wagenfeld conducted surveys and interviews in the garden. The women told us that the visits changed in four key ways:

  • The visit is now more child-friendly.
  • Visits are less stressful and boring. The garden was described as “cozy,” ‘calm’ and ‘fun’ by interviewees.
  • Homelike environment: The garden’s “backyard” feeling encourages natural play and conversation between the women in prison and their visitors.
  • Parent-child relationship improved: Children visitors visit more frequently, stay longer, and enjoy better activities. Quiet time also improved. The garden has improved the time spent by incarcerated mothers and their children.

Some people are in favor of strengthening mother-child relations, but sometimes I hear criticisms. Some people say that money is wasted on improving prisons. However, the garden was funded by donations and sweat equity from ICIW students and women. Some say people shouldn’t commit crimes or that if prisons are too nice, people will stay. While the prison is the safest environment many of these women will ever have, they still want to return home. Healthy environments are not a luxury but a necessity.

The journey of mothering is both an amazing and challenging experience. This is something I have experienced first-hand, and I can’t imagine trying to do it in prison. According to the information requests and consultations that I have received from all over the world, people are aware of these challenges, and they care about strengthening mother-child relationships by changing the physical space in prisons.