The Solitary Garden

A solitary garden in Philadelphia invites passersby to “imagine a landscape without prisons.”

For more than twelve years, Jesse Wilson has eaten, slept, read, showered, dreamed, and shat in a seven-by-twelve-foot room. His sink sits on top of his toilet. His bed is a concrete slab. His four-inch-wide window is angled so that a slice of sky is all he sees of the world outside. For every twenty-three hours inside this room, he may, or may not, get an hour away— time alone in a workout room so drab inmates nicknamed it “the empty swimming pool.” “Day and night bleed into one long sigh,” he writes in a letter from his cell in ADX Florence, a supermax prison designed to house our nation’s most dangerous prisoners. The complex is located in Colorado, though for Jesse’s purposes it might as well be on the dark side of the moon. “This place is one of extreme soul-crushing blankness. Nothing is alive that’s normal.   No grass, no weeds, no trees. Just concrete and red brick walls.”

Twelve hundred miles away, in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana, Ana Croegaert reads and responds to Jesse’s letters. Both Jesse and Ana are participants in Solitary Gardens, a social art project that matches inmates in solitary confinement with pen pals on the outside. Imprisoned men are encouraged to imagine their cells as gardens while volunteers tend actual beds according to their partners’ detailed instructions. Jesse’s favorite vegetables are okra, eggplant, hot peppers, and collards, and his solitary garden has grown them all. Right now, though, his plot bursts with pansies. When he’s feeling down, the photos Ana sends of the purple, yellow, orange, and black petals cheer him. “It is really not the sun that shines in this tomb,” he reflects in one letter. “It is the beauty of conscious human beings choosing to love and study and share the preciousness of existence.”

Choosing to love and study and share the preciousness of existence is a spot-on description of jackie sumell, the artist who engineered Solitary Gardens. Sinewy and tan with dark corkscrew curls, jackie (who doesn’t capitalize her name as pushback against “the imperial requirements of grammar and properness”) first became involved in prison abolition eighteen years ago when she heard Robert King speak about the psychological damage associated with solitary confinement. Out of thirty-one years served at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, King spent twenty-nine alone, locked inside a six-by-nine-foot cell. He’d been convicted of a prison murder, a charge that was later overturned on appeal. “Upon my release from prison,” King shares in his memoir From the Bottom of the Heap, “I made a promise that ‘Even though I was free from Angola, Angola would never be free of me.’” He’s spent the decades since traveling in and outside of the United States, speaking of his experience, the plight of political prisoners, and the need for prison reform.

“I was inspired,” jackie recalls. A graduate student in fine arts at Stanford at the time, she asked King what she could do to help, and he suggested she write to his comrades, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox. Wallace and Woodfox had been sent to solitary confinement around the same time as King. Like King, they’d been charged with a prison murder, the stabbing of a twenty-three-year-old prison guard named Brent Miller. Scant evidence linked Wallace and Woodfox to the murder. At the time of Miller’s death, Wallace and Woodfox were active in the Black Panther Party and had been organizing hunger and work strikes to protest segregation, violence, and sexual abuse within the prison. Many, including Miller’s widow and lawyers familiar with the case, believe the accusation and convictions of Wallace and Woodfox were retaliatory, that Angola administrators had grown wary of the unwanted attention Wallace and Woodfox’s activism drew to the prison and used the murder charge as a means to isolate and silence the men. That strategy backfired. In the late 1990s, community activists became involved in the cases of Wallace, Woodfox, and King, who’d come to be known as the Angola Three, and sparked an international movement demanding their emancipation.

Before sending her first letter, jackie duct-taped a camera to her wrist and set a timer to go off every hour. The photos she took were unscripted and unfocused, banal in a way that people who don’t live on prison grounds or prison schedules take for granted. “Dear Mr. Wallace,” she wrote. “Here are twenty-four hours in my simple life. I cannot imagine yours —”

“Jackie,” he replied. “I’m trapped in a supermax prison cell anticipating attacks 24/7 and they often come. But when I get letters from people who hold respect for me — be it direct or indirect — it lends me a strength to endure the impossible.”

Solitary Gardens is a social art project that matches inmates in solitary confinement with pen pals on the outside.

Months later, as part of a class assignment, jackie asked Herman to describe his dream house. “I’ve always thought of myself in the bush; in the hills of Mexico — on the battlefield,” Herman wrote back. A dream house didn’t mesh with his revolutionary plans. Eventually, though, he played along, sharing an elaborate vision of a community gathering place, a home with details ranging from whimsical — “a swimming pool with a light green bottom and a large Panther in the center”— to gaudy — a bedroom with a “mirror ceiling, crystal furniture . . . and soft blue light” — to practical — a two-car garage and “several microwaves.” More than a mansion, however, Herman’s design resembled a prison. A long hallway connected rooms without windows, and a secret escape route, including a bunker beneath the pool and a tunnel disguised as a drainage pipe, reflected the inherent violence of incarceration; only a man who’s been attacked and had no place to flee would prioritize such measures.

Jackie built a miniature mockup of Herman’s dream house. With the dimensions he sent her, she also constructed a full-size wood duplicate of Herman’s cell: the toilet-sink, desk, chair, and sleeping slab. The two structures, prison cell and dream house, were exhibited together in a show called “The House That Herman Built.” The American prison system relies on the assumption that the two million men, women, and children currently incarcerated deserve what they get: a trial was fought; a judgment made. The details of punishment, what happens inside prisons, are largely concealed from the public, and for the most part, that invisibility is a convenience. It’s easier to believe in the system from afar. Up close, a multitude of dehumanizing practices discredit the institution. At the opening, tipsy gallery-goers stepped out of their own lives and into Herman’s. For a brief moment the fences and walls disappeared. One by one, strangers stood inside a duplicate of Herman’s cell and witnessed the architectural details of his dreams.

The show toured more than a dozen countries. The Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany, built a library in Herman’s honor, stocked with the political books he selected for his dream home. Jackie became the first visual artist to receive a Soros Justice Fellowship. Filmmaker Angad Bhalla made an Emmy Award–winning documentary of the project titled Herman’s House. Momentum to free Wallace and Woodfox grew, as did the bond between jackie and Wallace.

“You are feeling like a daughter I never had,” Herman wrote in a letter.

“My relationship to Herman transformed my life,” jackie tells me, standing beside Jesse’s garden bed in the Lower Ninth Ward. “I’m sorry if I get emotional. He transformed my life forever in the most beautiful way possible and so to be able to share those possibilities with other folks [ feels] really important.”

(Photo: Jesse Wilson’s drawing of his solitary cell in a letter to his penpal.)

Equal parts horticulture and abolition
, Solitary Gardens, jackie’s current project, expands on “The House That Herman Built.” Each garden bed is six by nine feet, the dimensions of Herman’s cell, and the floor plan — walls, toilet-sink, desk, chair, and bed — are laid in mortar. The negative space, where a prisoner can move about, is for plants.

“This is Anthony Davis. He’s in New York,” jackie says, pointing at a garden bed thick with a flowering plant called creeping vetch. “Mike LeBlanc,” she says, pointing at another. “He’s amazing. He’s at Rayburn Correctional.”

Prison abolition differs substantially from prison reform. While the prison reform movement focuses on improving conditions within prisons and rehabilitating inmates, abolitionists imagine a world without prisons, a society where justice is restorative and people’s worst mistakes don’t determine their destinies. The work of prison abolition is both pragmatic and farsighted, combining immediate action with a goal so distant it can, at times, feel impossible, but jackie is persistent. When she solicits inmates to participate in Solitary Gardens, she encourages them to think of their garden beds as an extension of themselves, to imagine some part of themselves thriving beyond their cell walls. In this way, jackie is opening doors, allowing inmates access to people and places outside the of the prison system that confines them.

Jackie has set up solitary gardens in New York City, Philadelphia, Providence, Houston, and elsewhere, but her Andry Street garden in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward houses the majority of her beds. After catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Katrina, the Lower Ninth has been rebuilt far less than other neighborhoods in New Orleans. Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation constructed more than a hundred affordable, solar-powered homes in the ward, and some residents have returned on their own, but that development is blocks from Andry Street, closer to the Mississippi River. Where I’m visiting jackie, in an area called “Backatown,” buildings are largely abandoned and land is cheap. Few lots have houses and, with so many meadows and trees, the neighborhood appears more rural than urban. Jackie leased her plot through the city’s “Growing Green” redevelopment program and eventually bought it outright. Her lot with its garden beds functions as a studio, a place to work out kinks, try new materials, and discover what works and what doesn’t.

In the spring and fall, when the plants are at their peaks,  the Andry Street lot bursts with color. A hanging wooden sign explains the concept behind Solitary Gardens, and an open-air shelter with a table and benches provides shade and a workspace. Numerous garden beds mimic the side-by-side layout of prison cells, and wood and rope structures suggest each cell’s door.

When we arrive at Zulu’s bed, jackie points out a bushy herb. Catnip. “It helps with anxiety,” Zulu wrote in a letter. “We have tons of feral cats in Angola, and we have tons of anxiety in prison. Don’t you guys have cats at the Solitary Gardens?! Let ’em have some catnip then!”

Another inmate, Chopper, planted his bed with healing herbs for his mother who has cancer. “The ‘harvesting’ should be carried out when the volatile essences of the herbs are at their highest,” he wrote, “between the time before flowering, just before the sun is fully up and just after the dew has dried.”

Jackie finds most of her collaborators by word of mouth. Prisoners involved with the gardens often recommend their friends. Today, more than forty prison inmates and twenty Cuban detainees have participated in Solitary Gardens. Of course, not everyone jackie contacts is excited by her work. Some don’t have time. Others lack interest. A few are truly zany. One man proposed a garden filled with VCRs and crystals, a vision jackie chose not to realize.

(Photo: A reproduction of a solitary confinement cell.)

(Photo: Warren Palmer’s garden design includes herbs for his mother’s cancer treatment.)

Step inside your bathroom.
Close the door and keep it closed. Stay there for twenty-three hours. Don’t call a friend. Don’t text. In fact, hide your phone so it doesn’t tempt you. Just be. What feelings emerge? What happens to your mind? Your heart? Your body? Multiply that feeling by a million. Imagine there’s no end in sight. This is how Albert Woodfox, the last of the Angola Three to be released, described solitary confinement. With the unfortunate title of having served the longest time in solitary confinement in the United States — forty-four years and ten months — he would know.

The Association of State Correctional Administrators estimates that American prisons subject more than eighty thousand people to solitary confinement each year. Put another way, the number of inmates in solitary confinement in the United States is equivalent to the entire general prison population in the UK. Conceived in the 1820s, solitary confinement — also called isolation, lockdown, the SHU, the pound, the hole, and the dungeon — was designed to rehabilitate troubled inmates. Studies out of Harvard Medical School, McGill University, and University of California show it does anything but. Individuals in solitary frequently experience psychological distress, with symptoms including perceptual disturbances, hallucinations, anxiety and panic attacks, difficulty concentrating, revenge fantasies, diminished impulse control, hypersensitivity to stimuli, paranoia, and self-mutilation. More recent reviews of the California, Alabama, and New York City prison systems demonstrate that people in solitary are many times more likely than their incarcerated counterparts to commit suicide. “The international standard for the maximum amount of time you can spend in solitary is fifteen days,” jackie says. “Most folks go crazy, which is what made [the Angola Three] Herman, Albert, and Robert so unique.”


A century and a half ago, the United States tore itself apart over the practice of slavery, with 750,000 lives lost in the American Civil War. Near the end of the war, Abraham Lincoln passed the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.” Two years later, in 1865, Congress passed the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, formally banning slavery, except “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” In other words, inside American prisons, slavery not only exists, it’s absolutely legal.

Since the 1960s, social scientists led by Angela Davis have criticized the American prison system for upholding the ideology and practices of chattel slavery. After reconstruction, Jim Crow laws codified a national narrative of racial inequality that was violently reinforced. In southern states, the rampant lynching of African Americans was not only condoned but also celebrated by the white majority. Today, racial terrorism is perpetuated by the police, and by our justice and prison systems, which excessively charge, sentence, and incarcerate brown and black men. The link back to chattel slavery is quite apparent in the stories of Wallace, Woodfox, and King. Angola State Penitentiary, where they were all held, occupies the grounds of a former plantation. Overseen by armed guards, a disproportionately black inmate population still works the fields. Inside, sexual servitude, a kind of bondage common during chattel slavery, is rampant. The youngest inmates are the most vulnerable, and abuse comes both from guards and prisoners.

Solitary Gardens reifies the link between slavery and prisons. Sugar cane and cotton, cash crops of American slavery, mark the edges of the Andry Street plot, and “revolutionary mortar,” a biodegradable substance mixed from those plants, outlines the floor plan of each bed. A row of wooden and aluminum gates recalls both solitary cell doors and the human cages common at slave auctions. Over time, the gardens will evolve. The mortar will decompose, returning to the earth, and the vines will climb the gates, toppling those made of wood. “If we’re going to be prison abolitionists,” jackie says, “we have to be comfortable with change.” Eventually, all that remains will be the aluminum gates, which will stand “as monuments to our complicity to cruel and unusual punishment.” The decomposition process enacts what jackie hopes will happen to American prisons: that they fall out of use but are never forgotten.

By design, Solitary Gardens inverts the coercive labor practices of chattel slavery. Decision making occurs from the bottom up. Those with the least power — incarcerated men — map the layout and makeup of each bed, while volunteers on the outside see those plans through. On every level, participation is by choice, and what the gardens produce — vegetables, herbs, and flowers — is given away freely. The arrangement models another way of being, an economy rooted in generosity, not capital.

Solitary Gardens is for the gentleman on her street who was stabbed last night; it’s also for the man who did the stabbing.

Jackie sees her work as a continuation of nineteenth-century antislavery abolitionism. Last year, during a five-week stint at the Robert Rauschenberg Residency on Captiva Island, she fashioned a roving classroom from a retired ambulance. Named for William Lloyd Garrison, a founder of the New York–based AntiSlavery Society of the 1800s, jackie and her copilot, Rodricus Crawford — exoneree of death row — took the Garrison on the road, touring the East Coast to build new gardens. Like Garrison, who published newspapers recounting the evils of slavery, jackie believes education is essential for promoting her cause. Each garden she builds is an opportunity to share with others what she’s learned about prison injustice.

We’re on Andry Street still looking at garden beds when jackie yells, “Fuck. Not again,” and starts running down the block. Black smoke funnels into the sky. The origin? Two blocks away a car is on fire. By the time I catch up to her, jackie is on the phone with 911. “I don’t know what kind of car it is!” she’s saying. “Just send a goddamn firetruck. There’s brush everywhere. It’s like California out here. The whole neighborhood could go.”

She hangs up, and we hear sirens blare, then fade. An ambulance is headed elsewhere. A neighbor steps out of his house and makes his own emergency call. On one side of the flaming car is a wooden house. Across the street stands a copse of trees, new growth that’s come in since Hurricane Katrina. Trucks drive by, but nobody stops. I call 911 and the dispatcher asks me the make and model of the car. “Does it matter?” I ask. “The thing’s on fire.”

“They always do that,” jackie tells me, when I get off the phone. “They don’t get urgency.”

While flames leap and pop, we chat about jackie’s near misses with fire. Two years ago, a five-alarm fire burned down three adjacent houses. “I was doing yoga on my deck,” she says, telling me she almost lost her home. Last year, her own deck caught fire. “I feel like it’s my energy, like I’m causing it.”

A fire station is located only a few blocks away. Surely, we muse, they can see the smoke from their garage. As more neighbors step out to watch, a police officer parks near the flaming car, which is blazing higher than the nearby tree tops. Someone in a sedan rolls down a window and chats with the cop. Eventually, an actual fire truck arrives and firefighters unwind their hoses. We don’t stay to watch the dousing. Some bystanders — a grandmother and granddaughter — have questions about the garden. Does jackie grow shallots? What can you cook with rosemary? If cotton balls come from cotton plants, where does cotton candy come from?


(Photo: Volunteers lay revolutionary mortar.)


According to jackie, the best activism is equal parts love and anger, though in her case, love, more than anger, shines through. Her playful nature stands in stark contrast to the seriousness of her work. Walking down the sidewalk, she’ll pause to pluck the purply-pink petals of an oxalis plant, a sorrel that grows rampant in New Orleans. “Tastes like sour Skittles,” she’ll say and hand you a blossom. In teeny letters, abolish prisons   is inscribed on the arms of her glasses. The word dignity is tattooed in larger script on her arm. When she shows a volunteer how to harvest herbs, she doesn’t use words like trim or reap. Instead, she announces that this plant needs a haircut and offers a pair of shears. If the cutting job involves flowers, she might say, “Off with his head,” or “guillotine that.” She laughs often, lifting her face to the sky. She cries often, too. “This work,” she says, “is physically and emotionally hard.”

Jackie is the eldest in a family of five. Her youngest brother, Albert, is an economics professor at Youngstown State University. Her middle brother, Matt, writes fiction. “Both my parents were working class,” she tells me. “My mom’s first-generation ItalianMalaysian. My dad grew up in a blue-collar home in Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn. My mom was the first person in her family to go to college. My dad never went.” Back then, jackie assumed she’d follow her parents into the health field. Her mother was a nurse. Her dad was a prosthetist. “So I was like maybe I’ll be a physical therapist or maybe I’ll be a nurse or maybe I’ll be a doctor I never wanted to be an artist.”

(Photo: Planted at the request of incarcerated mothers, snapdragons, black-eyed Susans and forget-me-nots flourish.)

On a Thursday morning, a group of college students from Emory University visit the garden. They’re here on an alternative spring break, and they’ve been volunteering all over the city. They circle up, and jackie tells them how the Solitary Gardens came to be. “In 2013, twelve years after our first correspondence, Herman Wallace was released from prison,” she says. “He’d spent forty-one years in solitary confinement and was suffering from liver cancer. Three days later, surrounded by loved ones, he died. Each time I build another one of these prison cells turned garden bed, I’m figuring out how to speak the language of incarceration and also introduce the possibility of change.”

She points to a row of dried squash hanging from a beam on the shed. “Somebody asked what those big weird hanging things are. Those are loofahs, spa sponges. Over the summer one of our solitary gardeners asked to grow it and that fucking plant is responsible for taking down two gates. I’m really proud of it.”

A student raises his hand. “You said you want to eliminate all prisons. What do you propose instead for those who violate the law?”

Jackie takes a breath and thanks him for his question. “I’m not suggesting we open the doors to all the prisons and everyone comes home as damaged human beings. We have to come up with a system that removes folks for committing, and— I’ll say it — so-called ‘crimes’ from the communities that they have harmed, not with the desire to punish them for the rest of their lives, but to infuse them with the same healing and potential that those of us with access to privilege have.”

Jackie’s voice is raw. For her, the cruelty of prison isn’t an abstraction. It’s happening in every state and to people she loves. Even if she wanted to, she’s no longer able to tune out, as many of us do, the violence and cruelty so common in prisons. Incarceration is the wrong that has shaped her art, her heart, and her life. But there’s something else, too. The students don’t know it but last night jackie witnessed a stabbing in her neighborhood. “It was just like with the car fire,” she’ll tell me later. “I dialed 911 and they kept asking questions. What more did they need to know? Send someone out. A man is fucking dying.”

“Laws are meant for law-abiding citizens,” she tells the group. “The designation of crime is fluid, very much like gender and race. Let’s say a hundred years ago I was doing what I’m doing now — I would’ve been burned at the stake. You feel me? Because it was a crime. If we come up with these permanent solutions for this fluid relationship to what is crime . . .” She trails off and then picks up the thread. “Look at marijuana — that doesn’t work.” She goes on to talk about restorative justice, how a community can hold people accountable, how difficult and honest conversations can change the trajectory of a life. “I live in the Seventh Ward. Every single household has someone beloved who is incarcerated.” She shares that, in the state of Louisiana, black men are incarcerated at four times the rate of white men. “How can you deny that relationship to chattel slavery,” she asks.

By the time she’s finished talking, tears streak more than a few cheeks.

The students fan out across the small garden lot. Some weed. Others harvest. A group spreads a black tarp over a large patch of crabgrass, a weed, jackie notes, that’s “a bigger colonizer than hipsters in the Bywater,” one of New Orleans’s most gentrified neighborhoods. A few students write letters.

“It’s beautiful how much faith she has in people and their ability to become better and overcome their past,” nineteen-year-old Mateo Tewari says as he pulls dandelions from a row of sugar cane.

Ama Frimpong, another first-year, is harvesting radishes from Anthony Davis’s garden. “Most of the time, people who are incarcerated, their names get lost. They become a demographic. It’s refreshing to see different names and different faces. We may not know them personally, but we kind of feel a connection to them because we’re seeing where they are right now.”

“This is what I want to do with my life,” says Jaya Brizendine. She keeps talking, telling me about her future— how she plans to both garden and protest incarceration, how those acts will give her life meaning, how acknowledging suffering is its own kind of balm, how beauty can arise from the worst of what we do, how a seed watered and cared for can tear down walls. I know what she means because I feel it, too. Humbled. Inspired. Empowered. And that’s the whole point. Jackie’s art isn’t about her. It’s about everyone else: volunteers and school groups, families and friends, gardeners and pen pals, victims and perpetrators. Solitary Gardens is for the gentleman on her street who was stabbed last night; it’s also for the man who did the stabbing.


The way jackie tells it, Hurricane Katrina radicalized her. “Y’all call yourselves activists,” she remembers prison activist Malik Rahim saying shortly after the storm. “That means you got to act. You can’t just raise money or send letters of condolence or fucking clothing. ACT.”

Jackie did, coming to New Orleans after Katrina, expecting to spend a few weeks rebuilding. Almost fifteen years later, she’s still here. “I’ve been blessed because I have these incredible elders and there’s no distinction between what their hearts say and what their mouths say. That’s radical.”

Jesse’s favorite vegetables are okra, eggplant, hot peppers, and collards, and his solitary garden has grown them all.

Eventually, jackie bought a house here, and the house brought her a family. “It’s a very unexpected orientation of family,” she tells me when I ask her about the children she’s helped raise. “For over ten years I’ve been co-parenting with [Erica Foy], whose partners, both of her children’s dads, are incarcerated. [Erica’s kids] started off as neighbors and just grew closer. It’s been this shared experience. I don’t think Erica planned this either. We think of each other as sisters for all intents and purposes. I mostly help with anything that has to do with school or education, formal and informal. Sex ed. Radical ed. Erica is mom.”

Her home, jackie reflects, “is within the principles and language of Herman’s teachings a space to nurture kids who don’t have access or balance or who have been scarred by the history of poverty and oppression.” On one side of the house, she and her life partner, Jamal Elhayek, maintain a children’s garden. On the other side, they grow food for themselves and the neighborhood. Three of Erica’s children — Doudie, Bre, and Malik — have been part of the gardens “from jump.” As a toddler, Doudie watered plants taller than he was. “Now,” says jackie, “he’s taller than the plants. It’s wild.”

Prison abolition is a Sisyphean task. Like the car fire we witnessed, the crisis is flaming while the response, if it comes,   is agonizingly slow. For those on the frontlines, the work is exhausting. Jackie admits she gets overwhelmed. “It can feel really defeating. Like any one of the plants that we see, [the feeling] changes and passes and transforms and I just have to be with it.”

To an extraordinary extent, jackie sustains herself by living her values. The architecture of capitalism, she says, “keeps things separate — your spiritual practice on Sunday and your work Monday through Friday. That’s a really toxic foundation.” Instead of siloing her various identities, jackie does her best to incorporate her full self into all parts of her life. She meditates and exercises and checks in often with her elders— the living and the deceased — men like Wallace and King who have loved and mentored her. When possible, she uses artist residencies to recharge and refocus.

Change is the concept she’s embracing right now, a lesson her gardens teach constantly. “New Orleans has been very generous in sharing that story, too,” jackie notes. “She’s unapologetically falling apart and changing all the time.”

Like her gardens and her city, jackie’s funding is frequently in flux. She’s received grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Eyebeam project, and A Blade of Grass, but sweat equity keeps things rolling when those streams dry up. To finance her own life, she teaches community yoga classes and is an adjunct professor at a local university. She’s also preparing for new exhibits, for a retrospective at Brown University’s Cohen Gallery, and building an aluminum cell-garden for the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her life is full in ways that she has curated. “It is a radical act to listen to your inspiration, to listen to your heart, especially when it tells you to go against everything that society tells you to do: to achieve, to grow, to gain, to be named, to be seen. King was like, ‘No.’ You love, and in that love, a robust love that is nothing shy of revolutionary, you find yourself.”


Outside Tulane University’s Newcomb Art Museum, the smell of geraniums and snapdragons wafts through a shiny aluminum cell gate and its accompanying aluminum prison furniture. Shaped like a moat, a brightly colored garden encircles the cell. Jackie’s sculpture is the first piece visitors see in  a multi-artist exhibit titled “Per(Sister): Incarcerated Women  of Louisiana.” According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the nationwide incarceration rate for women has jumped 834 percent over the last forty years, and in Louisiana, the rate is significantly higher. Eighty percent of imprisoned women are mothers, and their incarceration devastates families. Ninety percent of the time, when a father goes to prison, his children stay put, continuing to live with their mother. However, when a mother goes to prison, her children often lose both their primary caretaker and their home. Jackie’s “Per(Sister)” sculpture, titled “Flowers for Incarcerated Moms,” is designed to raise awareness about this issue.

An offshoot of Solitary Gardens, Flowers for Incarcerated Moms asks individuals to grow flowers on behalf of incarcerated mothers. The mothers choose from a list of twelve flowers, all of which are growing in jackie’s garden outside Newcomb. Museum-goers are encouraged to take seed packets to plant on their own. When the flowers bloom, participants send photos back to jackie, and she passes the images along to the participating mothers, most of whom are serving life sentences. It’s  a small and meaningful gesture. “I received your email this morning and as always I was so happy to hear from you,” reads a plaque in the Newcomb garden, a quote from one mother’s correspondence. “Thank you so much for sharing these beautiful, I mean beautiful, flowers that are being grown on my, and others’, behalf. If you could see me now, I have the biggest, brightest smile on my face, and so much joy in my heart.”

Until it sprouts, a seed is a very small room, a confined space with rigid walls. Inside is pure potential: the plumule that will become the plant’s stalk; the embryonic leaves that will nourish the plant after it sends down those first tentative roots. The first time I met jackie, she gave me four seed packets: nettle, soybean, okra, and forget-me-nots. Forget-me-nots, I read on the packaging, are symbols of “adoration, true and undying love, and support for the poor, disabled, and those in need.” They thrive in partial shade and moist rich soil. After visiting with jackie, I tip the specks onto my palm and poke them into the damp earth beneath two magnolia trees. In eight to thirty days, those small seeds will germinate. When the first leaves uncurl, what’s hidden will be unearthed. O

 This article is the second in a series examining how artists work and what life is like in communities that include working artists. It is published with support from the Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation. To promote a holistic dialogue about the value of artists, the Tremaine Foundation supports a collective online space called Artists Thrive. Resources and tools within Artists Thrive help artists, arts organizations, and other groups that work with artists collaborate and craft meaningful stories about why art-making matters. Artists Thrive aims to identify the things that help artists pursue their vision and to enable communities to benefit from the arts in all aspects of life. More information can be found at

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Anya Groner’s essays, stories, and poems have appeared in Guernica, the New York Times, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. She lives and teaches in New Orleans.


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