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Gardening Program Helps San Quentin Parolees Adjust to Life on the Outside

By Genevieve Bookwalter

Anthony Forrest has lived almost half of his 52 years behind bars.

He’s been in and out of prison for much of his life, spending a total of 25 years incarcerated, he said.

Less than two months before he walked out of San Quentin State Prison for the last time, Forrest said, he knelt down and prayed for help turning his life around. He walked of the room and saw a flier for Planting Justice, offering paroled felons from Alameda and Contra Costa counties jobs planting gardens around the East Bay and greater Bay Area after they got out.

 “I didn’t want to leave San Quentin the same way I went in,” Forrest said. “I wanted to change everything.”

Forrest was released on a Wednesday. The next day he got married, and the following Monday he reported for work with Planting Justice. That was in 2011. He’s been with the group ever since, growing vegetables, giving talks, and raising money for the nonprofit outside Farmer Joe’s grocery store in Oakland’s Dimond District.

“This is a new beginning here,” said Forrest, whose most recent stint in San Quentin involved six years on charges of assault with a deadly weapon (“technically it was a drug deal gone bad,” he said).

Since joining Planting Justice, Forrest has started a community garden at his church, taught at a local high school and now is earning his degree in permaculture at Merritt College in Oakland, where he lives.

Forrest’s old friends, he said, “they’re in a position to go to prison forever. I only see myself going up the ladder.”

Planting Justice celebrated its fifth anniversary this April. The brainchild of Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi, the organization has provided 13 San Quentin parolees with jobs after they left prison. Only two have returned there, Raders said. Six remain on the 22-member staff.

The program was a natural progression for the two longtime community organizers, who previously worked largely on political campaigns, said Raders, 31. He and Zandi volunteered at the Inside Garden Program at San Quentin, which teaches inmates how to grow their own food. There, they often heard students complain that while the program was good, they weren’t sure how to integrate their new skills after leaving prison.

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