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A man in prison holds a pink flower that he grew inside.
Photo by Jeffrey McKee

The outside winter colors are not unlike the drab nicotine-stained walls of our prison cells.

But when spring arrives, the prison yard transforms. Fresh smells from the mowed grass. A panoply of colors from the blooming flowers. It all stands in sharp contrast to prison.

So we were overjoyed recently when the prison allowed several of us to grow flowers in our cells. We were given dirt, small planter pots and a handful of seeds, but no instructions.

Each night we brought out our pots and showed them off as if they were our children. We’ve deliberated about proper watering, lighting and care.

When the seeds began to sprout, we discussed what flowers we had and how to continue cultivating them.

Kolby had one single sprout with a reddish green stem and three red, brown and green mixed leaves. He used twist ties from bread loafs to divert the three plant branches into a pitchfork shape. The leaves had been situated toward a reflector that Kolby made from cardboard and a silver candy bar wrapper. The wrapper reflected light coming through the window back onto the leaves.

Kolby used an old nasal spray bottle to spritz his flowers. The other day, after a good spritzing, he moved the pot and found a tiny caterpillar apparently dead in a puddle of water.

As Kolby explained it, he performed a kind of CPR on the caterpillar. He tilted the tiny creature in his hand so its head was positioned toward the ground, then gently shook him until the caterpillar spat out the water. At that point, Kolby tapped it with his finger and blew on the insect, waiting for a wiggle. The resuscitated caterpillar now has a home in the pot, and is fed a diet of broccoli and leaves.

Brian planted seven seeds of what he believed to be lavender. Every time he watered, the seeds floated to the top of the dirt. Eventually he had two sprouts; only one survived. Brian used a post of laminated cardboard to support the vine, which grew to about seven inches with only two leaves. After two months, he gave up.

Brian said he found no joy in having the flower. He later admitted to feeling guilty about laughter or joy because of his crime. He doesn’t feel like he deserves good feelings anymore.

Ben made a special flip-top table out of cardboard for his pot, and attached it to his toilet. This worked for a week, until one day he dropped a jar of coffee off the shelf above the toilet onto the table, which knocked over the planter and scattered dirt across his floor.

Ben tried to make a hanging basket to secure the pot underneath his lamp at night. He used another shelf by the window during the day. He had two pots, one with a 6-inch vine and a few leaves. The other held a thick, green shoot with alternating leaves, and one fully bloomed light purple flower. Using two coffee jars, Ben constructed a special base for the bottom of each pot. He fills the jars with water at the beginning of each day, and the roots now extend several inches — evidence of the plants enjoying their morning drink.

Rich had three pots — a mix of vines, bushes and shoots — that he situated on a multi-tier shelf in his window. Rich explained that he plucked and trimmed them as they reached the top of their individual tier. His collection of plants started to look like a mini forest.

As for me, I started with one pot. I dumped the handful of seeds in the middle, knocked some dirt on top, then watered it. I was the first to have sprouts, but they were clumped together and several died off. I planted some different seeds on the outer edges of the pot, which filled the space.

With no flowers blooming, I grew impatient. So I pulled four different types of flowering weeds from the prison yard and added them to the planter. Only two have survived, and have yet to bloom.

I was given another pot with two types of flowers already partially grown. I watched the first flower — a purple one — bloom over the course of a day. Eventually the other flower bloomed into a red-orange color. I love the smell of flowers — it’s a much better fragrance than old men in prison cells.

At night, after I pruned and examined them, I placed the pots in front of the TV on my desk. When I woke up at 3 a.m. and turned on the TV, I felt like I was camping in a forest. During the day, I placed the plants on a shelf in my window to expose them to the sun.

I’ve noticed a similarity between prison and plants. I took a handful of seeds of different colors and species, and indiscriminately threw them together in a pot too small for such a large number. I did not give much forethought to their individual basic needs.

As each plant sprouted and grew, they raced, fighting each other for life-sustaining sunlight. Some grew tall. Some grew wide. Some wound their way around and through the others to pick up the remaining light. Some bloomed pretty flowers, perhaps hoping I would take notice and give them extra water and light.

With the exception of Brian, who suffers from daily depression and sorrow, Kolby, Ben, Richard and myself enjoyed having something living depend on us. It breaks up the monotony of daily life in prison, as Richard put it.

“These plants depend on me to keep them going. Though it may be only a plant, I matter to them,” Richard said. “Caring for them is a small responsibility, but they can thrive with my care. … This lifts my spirits. I matter to something.”

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington. He is a member of the PJP chapter of Society of Professional Journalists.