Extensive landscaping makes the Iowa Correctional Institution for Women look like a college campus, albeit one surrounded by a 16-foot fence. But the landscaping almost didn’t happen. “The state only had enough money for walkways, nothing for trees,” said STV’s David Ziskind. “Then someone mentioned that one of the foremost landscape architecture schools in the country was an hour’s drive away.”
So Ziskind was off to Ames, home of Iowa State University. “We met with the department chair, who agreed to have students help design the landscaping,” he said. All that remained was to find a faculty member to teach the course.
Enter Assistant Professor Julie Stevens, MLA, then in her first semester at ISU. Stevens created a syllabus on prison landscaping and personally supervised her students as they and ICIW offenders designed and built healing/contemplation areas, two outdoor classrooms, a tiered assembly area, a yoga venue, a native prairie, and a vegetable and herb garden.
For security reasons, the students couldn’t use stakes or garden hoses. When a plastic trowel went missing, “They shut down the entire prison and confined everyone to their cells until it was found,” Stevens recalled.
She said the design was grounded in therapeutic landscape and environmental psychology theory. One aspect of this is “prospect refuge”—creating a space where you can see but cannot be seen.
But in a prison, corrections officers have to be able to see inmates at all times. This led to the choice of species for the refuges. “Aspens don’t get very wide, and you can’t climb them,” said Stevens. “We keep the canopies open and maintain the sightlines for the officers, but the women can get shade and some privacy.”
The one-acre produce garden has been “a source of pride for the women, to see others eating the food they have grown,” she said.
More than 100 ISU students have taken part in the prison landscaping program since 2011. Their current project is the new Iowa State Prison, Fort Madison, where Patti Wachtendorf, formerly the warden at ICIW, is now in charge.
Stevens said that about 75% of ICIW inmates use the gardens. “There’s one woman who was a troublemaker. One day she said she was going to pick a fight,” said Stevens. “Then she thought about it, and said, ‘I’m just going to work in the garden. It makes me calm.’”