CCS Insight Garden Program

Citizen Science in Prisons

Overview Ryan Meyer Heidi Ballard Laci Gerhart

Project Duration



San Quentin State Prison, Avenal State Prison, Mule Creek State Prison, California


People who are incarcerated live in often dehumanizing conditions, lacking access to programs and opportunities for self-enrichment and mental health benefits, work and life skills, and connections to others. Those preparing to leave prison often return to communities most directly impacted by environmental injustice and disproportionate impacts of climate change. For more than 20 years, the Insight Garden Program (IGP) has been delivering a year-long environmental education curriculum through which people who are incarcerated lead the design, creation, and cultivation of in-prison permaculture gardens, develop emotional and social skills, and prepare for reentry as empowered environmental stewards. For three years, IGP and the UC Davis Center for Community and Citizen Science (CCCS) have been collaborating on the shared goal of facilitating citizen science activities in prison gardens. 

Our own experiences thus far show that people who live in prison are interested in science and desire more opportunities for science education. An early phase of this work established:

  1. Citizen science activities in prison gardens are feasible, and have been met with enthusiasm on the part of IGP participants.
  2. Citizen science activities fit well with IGP’s program: facilitators welcome hands-on activities that deepen and widen participant engagement with garden spaces, and connect to many different parts of IGP curriculum.
  3. Longer-term engagement in citizen science, whereby participants take charge of data collection over a longer period of time is feasible, and could greatly expand the benefits of these activities for participants.
  4. Expanding inquiry beyond pollinators, and to more prison facilities, could facilitate rich exchange: among participants; with scientists; with home communities.

Our long-term goal is to establish a first-of-its-kind California program in which a statewide network of people in prisons advances science that has real meaning and impact for the participants themselves, and beyond prison walls​ for communities and the environment. In this vision:

  • Scientists would collaborate with incarcerated people to conceive of and carry out science activities inside and outside of prisons.
  • Incarcerated people would build skills, knowledge, interests and credentials that expand opportunities for them and their communities.


UC Davis Public Interest Research Initiative


Insight Garden Program

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