Gardens to Give Inmates Freedom to Reflect
Group Funds Spaces That 'Engender Peace'
By Eric Rich
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 15, 2004; Page AA03
At the Well of Unspoken Truths, inmates will be able to write down the thoughts they dare not share, cast them into the darkness and indulge, however briefly, in the sort of vulnerability that is dramatically discouraged by prison life.
There, in the Peace Garden at Western Correctional Institution, prisoners will reflect at a Tree of Renewal and pause at a Sundial of Transformation, where the shadows they cast will mark the passage of time.
These are among the features of a labyrinthine garden, designed with the help of inmates, that is being constructed at the state's medium-security prison in Cresaptown in Allegany County. An Annapolis-based philanthropic interest is financing it.
The Peace Garden, as it is called, is being installed with the help of almost $50,000 from the TKF Foundation, a family-based group that is dedicated to "sacred outdoor spaces" that encourage reflection, provide solace and "engender peace."
The foundation, created by retired broadcasting executive Tom Stoner and his wife, Kitty, distributes close to $500,000 each year. The results can be found at hospitals and other locations, most of them in Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington.
Healing gardens at hospitals have become increasingly popular in recent years, but TKF's latest ventures -- in correctional facilities -- address what Stoner suggests is a different set of needs: those of inmates.
"The truth of the matter is they're really never alone," Stoner said last week, "and a lot of things happen in a prison that happen to everybody else." For inmates, there are deaths, births, the trials of normal family life, but "there's no opportunity for people in a prison to reflect, to have an opportunity to be alone when these kind of crises come along."
Stoner, 69, said inmates in a horticultural program at the prison initially sought a grant for a greenhouse. After a meeting of foundation representatives, inmates and others, a concept evolved.
"They all asked for one thing," he said of the inmates, "a place to take their thoughts and write them down, but then dispose of them." That's where the Well of Unspoken Truths comes in, with a pipe at least 20 feet deep, where inmates might record and then consign to darkness thoughts that, if discovered, could be used against them, he said.
TKF is also funding a prison garden at the Metropolitan Transition Center, formerly the Maryland penitentiary, in Baltimore and is a contributor to gardens in the Washington area dedicated to the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The foundation has also financed a healing garden at the North Arundel Medical Center's Tate Cancer Center and a garden at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts in downtown Annapolis.
The greater goal, Stoner said, is to create in the prison gardens a "sacred space" that inmates can visit or experience for a short period of time -- a place where they can feel "connected to the earth, connected to a higher power, where they can feel at peace," he said.
Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state prison system, said the garden could provide "a wonderful place not just for meditation, but for chaplains or other prison staff to meet privately with inmates, et cetera."
"We do all we can with the money we have. Needless to say, however, we depend upon partnerships and grants for some fine programs such as these," he said.
Vernarelli said that "we feel these projects are critical because in a prison environment, you can't have enough positive programs, or enough places for inmates and staff to be able to reflect and meditate."
"The value of anything that maintains and promotes calm reflection cannot be overstated. The reduction of idle time by providing jobs for inmates is equally critical."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company