Oregon State Penitentiary Memorial Healing Garden gets its first visitors on Wednesday afternoon. (Jake Thomas/Salem Reporter)

SALEM — Wearing blue prison uniforms and kukui nut necklaces, Toshio Takanobu and Johnny Cofer stood outside of a room at the Oregon State Penitentiary welcoming people to the unveiling of an unlikely project in an unlikely place.

More than 100 people gathered at the prison for the grand opening of the Oregon State Penitentiary Memorial Healing Garden, a 13,000-square-foot Japanese-style garden that’s meant to provide a positive environment for incarcerated individuals as they prepare to return to society.

The first-of-its-kind project was driven by the Oregon State Penitentiary Asian Pacific Family Club. The club’s members spent five years developing relationships beyond the prison’s walls with nonprofits, philanthropies and individuals to raise funds and build the garden. Each of the attendees at Thursday’s event, which included government officials and volunteers, played some role in making it possible.

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In between greeting people, Cofer, a member of the Asian Pacific Family Club who coordinated the project, explained how he first got the idea for the garden while grappling with a sense of loss in prison that he couldn’t quite identify. He recalled watching his mother work in the garden growing up in Portland, which he said she referred to as “her therapy.”

“When I looked out my cell front and out of the window I noticed all I had a view of was another wall,” he said, referring to the barriers surrounding the prison. “And I realized what it was: there was nature missing in my life, and it was something we hoped to bring back.”

Cofer recalled seeing potential in the prison’s yard. He approached Takanobu, the club’s president, and the two began laying the groundwork for the garden that would take 181 inmate volunteers, 96 days of construction and cost a half-million dollars in donations to complete.

He said that coordinating the fundraising, design and construction of the garden from the maximum-security penitentiary was not easy. With limited communication to the outside, they began researching the idea and drawing sketches while developing ties with community groups and a local college professor.

Cofer said the project really gained momentum after Hoichi Kurisu, a noted designer of Japanese gardens, got involved. Steadily, the prison administration signed on to the idea.

‘Make good neighbors’                                                                              

After being welcomed, the attendees filed into a large room for a lunch of rice, chicken and macaroni salad and to hear from those who helped make the garden possible.

Michael Yoder, the penitentiary’s assistant superintendent, said there were times when he doubted the project but failed to “take into consideration the tenacity” of its proponents. 

Department of Corrections Director Colette Peters described the garden as the “most profound project” she’d seen in her 30-year career in public safety. She said it’s probably the largest of its kind in any institution.

She said it was “something special” how the garden brought the community into the prison to help and comes at a time when Oregon is seeking to undo decades of mass incarceration.

“This garden is going to make good neighbors,” she said.

She recalled the story of an inmate working on the garden’s construction who heard a noise while taking a break and couldn’t figure out what it was.

“And then he realized, it was the wind blowing through the leaves of the trees, a sound he had not heard in the 17 years he was incarcerated,” she said.

The garden

Hoichi Kurisu, the designer of the Oregon State Penitentiary Memorial Healing Garden, speaks during the ribbon-cutting of the garden. (Jake Thomas/SalemReporter)

After lunch, the ribbon was cut for the garden. Above the garden’s entrance is a sign with the Japanese word for “love” on the left and “harmony” on the right.

Surrounded by a chainlink fence and barbed wire, the garden includes a veterans memorial, a Zen garden and a Koi pond.

Kurisu, the garden’s designer, said that the garden includes a mix of Japanese and native plants, including Japanese maples, Gingko, as well as Vine Maples and Oregon Grape.

He said he had never done a garden like this and was struck by the pure motivation of the inmates to do something for others.

Takanobu said that motivation will continue now that the garden is complete. He said the garden will be used for therapeutic purposes for incarcerated individuals with PTSD. He said that it will also be used for a horticulture and maintenance program, helping inmates learn job skills.

“A lot of times the stigma and the stereotype of prison is that we're all criminals and bad people,” said Takanobu. He added that while they’ve made bad choices, 95% in Oregon will be released back into society.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or jake@salemreporter.com or @jakethomas2009.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled Johnny Cofer's name.