How Meditation and Horticulture Help People Heal After Prison

How Meditation and Horticulture Help People Heal After Prison


Returning to the community after incarceration can be overwhelming. In the turmoil of meeting vital needs, mental wellness is often overlooked. The Fortune Society works to address this issue through wellness efforts with a mental health focus. Amid the hustle and bustle of Castle Gardens, our housing development in West Harlem, our staff creates spaces of serenity.

Bernice Todres, a meditation instructor at The Fortune Society

One of those spaces is Bernice Todres’ weekly meditation class. Every Wednesday, a group engages in mindfulness training and practice. “[At Fortune,] everybody is giving,” says Bernice. “They’re putting out a lot and this is an opportunity once a week to be receiving.”

Unlike traditional class settings, Bernice’s has no requirements other than being present. “It’s a very level field and everybody just drops in…” she notes. Bernice doesn’t separate Fortune staff from participants—they’re all a part of Fortune and that’s what matters most.

“I’ve never asked anybody, ‘Who are you?’ I just come, I close my eyes, everybody closes their eyes and we meditate.”


Her style of meditation focuses on changing one’s perception, in order to deal with life’s challenges and obstacles. As Bernice explains, “We’re not trying to stop our thoughts, but we’re trying to cultivate some place inside of us. I always compare it with a lake. At the bottom of the lake, the sand is smooth and everything is still. Some days the surface of the lake is still. Some days it’s really choppy. Those of us who meditate regularly know that even when things are really stressful in life, there’s a place that we know we can go to.”

For individuals who have been formerly incarcerated, maintaining the practice of meditation can be vital to coping with the pressures of reentry.

“Life doesn’t work out. It doesn’t play out perfectly. So, mindfulness is like from moment to moment, it steers us through.”


Bernice Todres, a meditation instructor at The Fortune Society

Bernice has taught meditation for almost 40 years and has found that Fortune is different from other places she’s taught.

“There’s something about [The Fortune Society], the people. Everybody is not just friendly, they greet you with their hearts. It’s a privilege to be here.”


In addition to mindfulness and meditation, engagement with nature can vastly improve mental well-being. Sky Garden, located on the roof of Castle Gardens, was created as another healing space available year-round to the Fortune community. Featuring an array of flowers, fruits, vegetables, and herbs, the rooftop garden is the site of Fortune’s horticultural therapy program. Participants, most of which are residents of Castle Gardens, meet weekly to plant, water, harvest, and tend to the garden.

Deb Shaw, who became a certified Horticultural Therapist after a long career in costume design for theater, film, and television (learn more about her story here) started the program two years ago after teaching horticulture on Rikers Island. Through her work with individuals impacted by the criminal justice system, she has seen the immense impact gardening can have on successful reentry.

“I think the desire to nurture and take care of something is something that people are sorely missing when they’re in prison. Whether it’s a pet or a child or a wife or a husband or a mother or father or a plant, the opportunity is just sorely lacking. It’s shocking how small a thing that can be, but I think that giving somebody something to nurture is really big.”


  Deb Shaw, a horticulture instructor at The Fortune Society

In her program, participants learn horticultural skills and are given the chance to nurture plants, build friendships, grow and eat fresh produce, and empower themselves in the process.

“I think part of the success of the program here is that my participants don’t necessarily think of it as a therapeutic program. Though I will promise you that that’s how it functions,” she explains. The program serves multiple purposes – as Deb shares, it’s a chance to “participate in a mutually beneficial activity, and to give people a chance to talk. But it also gives people a sense of purpose.”

With a variety of activities available, experiences can become very individualized, and gardeners often gravitate to particular roles that fit their needs. “When it’s most successful,” Deb says, “I think each person takes away something different from it.”

Deb Shaw, a horticulture instructor at The Fortune Society

“I have one gentleman who comes up and he does one thing, and that’s watering. Watering is a very meditative activity. To be good at it you really have to focus, you have to be very attuned to whether the plants need water or don’t, and he has sort of taken on that as his job. He spent many, many years in prison and activities that focus the mind in those kinds of circumstances [are valuable]. It’s pretty obvious, that’s a really great activity for him.”

These therapeutic programs provide Castle Gardens residents, staff, and the greater West Harlem community with safe spaces and mental wellness techniques that can help in achieving personal and professional goals. Deb hopes that her program will continue and expand.

“I’d just love to see it keep on getting bigger and bigger. People, when they see what we’re growing, are very excited by it. People love to see it.”


Learn more about our how Fortune promotes health through food and nutrition, as well as dedicated mental health services.

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*Article by Carmen Rojas, Development and Communications Associate at The Fortune Society

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