SALEM — Encompassed within a thirty foot, cement perimeter wall and located on a busy thoroughfare in the heart of our state’s capital, the Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP) runs more than a century-and-a-half deep in a culture of, both, maximum security and minimum natural beauty. Thanks, however, to the vision and determination of my friend Johnny Cofer—along with the support of key institution staff, administrators and a remarkable outpouring of community support—construction is underway for a space that will stand as a monument to a shift in culture.
Soon, the area between one of OSP’s cellblocks and the recreational yard will be fully transformed into a beautiful, Japanese-style healing garden — the first of its kind at any prison in the nation. Evidence of the growth we’re looking to cultivate, through healing and connection, in a community perhaps most in need of it.
Restoration Through Innovation
My experience with this project has continually transformed me through resilience, innovation, and restorative justice efforts, and it has shown me similar change in our community, both inside these walls and out.
Johnny and I started our prison sentences in a similar and sadly common way. Like many Adults in Custody (AIC’s) faced with the consequences of our own poor decisions, we struggled to adjust to the loss of freedom, and with the guilt associated with how we had impacted our families and communities. However, with no blueprint for redemption, or clear guidelines for righting our wrongs, we found ourselves losing hope for doing so and sinking into the muck of prison culture and its redundant influences.
Consequently, I spent many days of my early prison years sitting in solitary confinement, contemplating my reason for coming to America from Saipan. The Pacific Island I grew up on offered limited opportunities, and I wanted to pursue more thorough education and personal development. What I realized, however, was that I had accomplished the complete opposite of my goal. More importantly, I saw that I owed it to myself and to everyone I had harmed to make good on what I had set out to achieve when I left the Islands.
I became active as a volunteer in OSP’s Asian Pacific Family Club (APFC) in December 2016. Through my role in the club, I began to accept myself and discover a sense of identity by connecting with my culture. In December 2014, I became club president. Accepting a leadership position motivated me to enroll in college classes and to develop my education, especially in the way of pro-social communication skills.
It was around that time that Johnny came to me with the idea of building a koi pond here at OSP. It started from a humble vision. We discussed creating something natural and beautiful where people might go to escape the stress and pressures of prison. Just a small koi pond on the unused lawn in a central part of the prison, near where the OSP Veteran’s Association had built a memorial wall.
Five years later, we are humbled by how freely our vision has been allowed to flourish.
The Seeds of a New Culture
Since becoming Superintendent of OSP in 2017, Brandon Kelly has led an administrative team open to progressive approaches for taking on Oregon Department of Corrections Director Collette Peters’ challenge of preparing AIC’s for successful re-entry into Oregon communities. The administration has supported our efforts from day one, and beyond anything we could have hoped for.
Working closely with prison executives has done so much in, “diminishing boundaries,” (part of our APFC mission statement) here at OSP. And the support has hardly been confined to within these walls. From all of our innumerable community partners, who have helped us with everything from grant writing, donations of time, labor, materials, finances, and so much more, and from our community of AIC’s and all they have given, I’m continually overwhelmed with gratitude.
This project continues to teach me the transformative power of unity and community, and I’m honored every time I witness barriers being transcended for the sake of our work as that message resonates with yet more and more of my peers.
A Spiritual Mentor
World-renowned Japanese healing garden designer Hoichi Kurisu—who is also donating his services—has become something of a spiritual mentor in our journey. In what’s become somewhat of a theme for our work, he avidly extols the healing power of oneness, and connecting with nature. I’ve heard Johnny say that before this project, he never really thought of the population here as his community. Through this project, we’re both discovering that no matter where or who we are, we have a responsibility to acknowledge and care for others in our community.
I’ve also heard Johnny say that this project has given him so much more than he has given to it. Considering all he’s given, it might be difficult to believe, but I understand. This journey has given us both a sense of purpose, hope, and a connection to our community—both within these walls, and in large. That’s more than either of us could possibly give in return. What’s more, our journey is only beginning. Our garden won’t be completed until August, yet the seeds of a new culture are already taking root.
This piece was a collaboration by Toshio Takanobu (author), Johnny Cofer, and James Clark (editor). Toshio is the President of the Asian Pacific Family Club at the Oregon State Penitentiary. He’s been incarcerated for 12 years, and has been involved in organizing efforts for the OSP Memorial Healing Garden project since its inception. Johnny is the visionary spearhead and Project Coordinator of the Memorial Healing Garden. He’s been incarcerated for 20 years and is currently constructing the garden along with numerous AIC volunteers. James is a volunteer and clerk for the project. He’s been incarcerated for 20 years and is an active student and facilitator of restorative justice groups at OSP.
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