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Bringing the Outside In

Photo by Selina Jean Weiss

On a Thursday night in December I arrive at San Francisco County Jail 2, just before 6 o'clock with an armful of roses and some freshly cut eucalyptus branches. The sherif at the front desk of the SOMA Jail is not surprised by me, or my load. She routinely asks for my ID and files it away. Then she assigns me a badge and a locker key "Lucky Number 7" she says, as I sign in and accept her offering. When Elisa, my facilitator arrives, she does that same and then we review our materials with the sheriff. "Worksheets, check. Roses, check, that one is easy." The sherif is matching the items in our arms to the pre-approved list of items we have requested to bring in."Jasmine, check, that one reminds me of my dad, he is a gardener. Pine, check, I don't want to get too close to that or I'll smell like a Christmas tree. Eucalyptus, check. Mint, check, White Sage and plastic bowls, check check check. You're good to go!" We're approved! (Emotional sigh of relief) Smooth check-ins at the sherif's front desk is the first hurdle to jump on our weekly Urban Agriculture class at CJ2. Sometimes the higher-ups haven't approved our materials list and they won't let us bring anything in. This sherif was more that helpful, she was even friendly. Some laugh at us, and some are super critical, making us count every colored pencil on the way in and on the way out.

Over the past year I have been working with a small group of avid Bay Area gardeners to provide a weekly class on the broad topic of plants. We call ourselves "The Plant People." Sometimes we plant seeds or transplant succulents. Other times we make healthy snacks like guacamole or fruit based sodas. About once a month we focus on the medicinal uses of plants.

We pass the sherif's desk, and turn a corner to put our personal items like bags, phones, keys, anything we don't want or can't bring into the jail into a locker. Then we go through the metal detector. Once we're cleared there, we wait at a large metal sliding door for our faces to be recognized by a camera, and somewhere in the jail someone pushes a button to allow the door open. It slowly creeks back into place once we have passed the threshold.

A few steps more and we're waiting for the elevator. We go up to the second floor, where we walk down a long hallway and again wait at a large metal sliding door to be recognized on camera. When the door opens we've entered the Pod.

There are three Pods at CJ2. You pass them when you are on the freeway approaching the Bay Bridge in SF. They are the roundish frosted windows on the building that has rounded walls, wave like. When I tell people that I volunteer at the County Jail in SOMA they often think of 850 Bryant, a very old building with a big reputation. Apparently there is a jail there too, but not as many people are housed there. Most people incarcerated by City and County of SF are housed in San Bruno and only brought up to the city at the Pods at CJ2 if their case is active.

The Pods are named as such because they are a round shape, where all of the cells look out into a center hub. I was taught that this is considered more humane than the long-halled jails we see on TV, which is how 850 is laid out. About 180 degrees of the very large room, with two floors is cells. They all look out into the center hub. On the other side of the room are a couple class room spaces with tables, chairs and a sink. Elisa and I enter the room and start to set up for class. The inmates can choose to come to class. Sometimes church or music is happening at the same time, so the number of participants ebbs and flows.

On that day in December there were about five women who came to our class. We went around and did introductions. All of them were excited at the sight of fresh plants. One woman in her fifties told me that she had studied herbs since the 1970's. Elisa, who is a landscaper by profession (check out Small Spot Gardens, voted Best of SF 2018 for landscaping) started the class by talking about how scent triggers memory. We went around and talked about what different scents reminded us of: fresh cut grass, cigarette smoke, marijuana, bond fires, roses. We talked physiology too - about the blood brain barrier and scent directly effecting the limbic system, emotions, behavior and memory.

Then we put science to the test. We passed around each of the plants to enjoy their unique scents. We talked about how they made us feel, what memories they evoked and if we did or did not like the scent. The fresh eucalyptus was fun to touch, the branches wild and woody, but the scent was hard to grasp. Finally, when we dug our fingernails into the small, fresh cones we got the bright, uplifting, scent of Glen Canyon.

Next was lavender. We admired the purple flowers and the wooly leaves and stems. Quickly, the chatter fell silent and we all sat back in our chairs. Within moments of smelling this calming-herb it was clear that we were all much more relaxed. I mentioned this, and we all, Elisa, the inmates and I gently smiled. In a lavender-induced state, we continued to sniff the leaves and flowers, enjoying this moment of peace.

The other plants, jasmine, was sweet and sultry, mint was tasty and the scent of pine reminded us of Christmas. The final plant, rose was a real treat. The women were over joyed to receive this voluptuous bright flower. Excited, they eagerly asked the sheriff if they could keep it - and she said yes! They were allowed to make a group arrangement, to be kept at the sherif's desk in the center of the Pod.

I gave a brief talk about essential oils, how they are made and how to use them. The women were inspired. While we can't distill plant oils in the jail due to regulations on what we're allowed to bring in we always make sure that the classes are interactive and fun. We ended the class by making facial steam baths with bowls of the hottest tap water we could get out of the piped in the classroom, and the fresh plants. The women enjoyed smelling and combining plants to make beautiful bowls of water and fragrant steam.

As the class ended, Elisa and I said goodby to the inmates, cleaned up the materials and walked back out, thought the sliding metal doors, the elevator and the metal detector. We check out of the jail with the sherif at the front desk and walked to our cars. "Even in jail - it works!" I said to her as we were about to part ways. "What do you mean?" she asked me. "All day, everyday, people ask me if plants really work, if plants will actually help them heal, there is so much skepticism. And there - even in jail, you can see, we all can see, that lavender really does promote relaxation." Elisa laughed, and smiled. "Yes, even in jail."

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