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At age 25, Jania Richardson lived in a 400-square-foot concrete cell with seven other women, four bunk beds, four lockers, a toilet and a shower. He felt as if he was suffocating.
But outside, in a small garden at the Central California Women’s Facility in Chowchila, among the grass, weeds, soil, and trees, she could breathe easier. He felt it when he voluntarily asked to water the plants.
“In those moments,” Richardson says, “I was at peace.” Her primary job in prison was sweeping and cleaning the grounds, but she eventually became known for her plantation skills. “People in prison brought me plants because they knew I liked them and that I could bring them back to life,” she says.
He was released from jail in June 2020. He was arrested in 2002 and later sentenced to 26 years for his involvement in first-degree murder during a robbery. Richardson was with another woman who shot a man in a motel, but said she did not intend to aid in the crime. She was released early because of a 2018 law that reduces penalties for accomplices in cases like hers.
At 40, she now lives in a studio apartment that’s not much bigger than her prison cell, but it’s full of life. Plants line windows, sit on nightstands, crowd kitchen counters and cover floors. Taking care of the plants at home allows him to take care of himself and take care of his mother Iris who lives in the hall. Iris has become fond of every green she has brought into her daughter’s world. Richardson often sees Iris talking secretly to the plants when she helps them.
Richardson surrounds herself with plants at work as a director at Huma House, a re-entry nonprofit in Los Angeles. She trains formerly incarcerated people in planting and pruning trees and employs them through the organization’s horticultural arm, Angel City Urban Farms. She purchases gardening and landscaping clients for her small team. She also leads “Soil Healing” programs, which guide people managing trauma through simple planting activities.
“Our DNA is altered through trauma. So what we are doing is reversing that trauma by creating new and healthy experiences,” she says, explaining how traumatic experiences can be.
Gardening is sacred to him. She takes care of every herb and weed in the gardens, but at her heart is a special place for bougainvillea’s vibrant fuchsia blooms—shrubs with hidden sharp thorns. She feels the heartbeat of the earth as the clay clings to her fingers.
“Gardening,” Richardson says, “helps people on many different levels. It helps you think better and helps you breathe better.”
When she was a child, her godmother would take her to a cousin’s house and she would run into the garden, where she felt “wrapped in a fairy-tale forest.” In the backyard of her own childhood home, where Tia and uncle and cousins all lived together, there was not much greenery. But she loved to climb a tall lemon tree. Then when she was 10, her family moved in and she got into trouble, transitioning in and out of juvenile detention facilities until she eventually ended up in Chauchilla.
He was imprisoned when his father suffered a stroke. After years of being in and out of hospitals and nursing homes, he died. Their relationship was complicated, partly because of his alcoholism and his mother’s abuse, she says; Although “the bad was mixed with the good … for the most part, the good prevails.”
When she places her hands on the ground, she releases her stroke. While he and his mother lost contact for several years, they are now inseparable and have two dogs, Allie and Ricky. The Richardsons welcome every passerby as they walk the dogs in the street. “Me and my mom, we had to reintroduce ourselves to each other,” Richardson says. “And we’re finally understanding the roles we have to play in each other’s lives.” Iris accompanies Richardson on several work projects, and the two often either bicker or laugh at the inside joke.
A few months after her release, Richardson joined the Huma House. She met Tobias Tubbs, co-founder of the nonprofit, through a mutual acquaintance. Tubbs spent 30 years in prison, where he eventually became a peer educator and trainer for rescue dogs. She co-founded Huma House with Mitra Johansson, who Richardson calls “the garden goddess”.
Initially, Richardson worked with his co-worker and mentor Brendan Wilson on a property in Beverly Hills through the Huma House. They taught him new skills, including how to understand tree, shrub and plant language.
“I poked an azalea, he told me to prune. He was trying to tell me it was okay,” Richardson thinks with a laugh, “but I noticed that the nerves in his neck were tense.
Richardson is continually building on her plant knowledge. She often uses Google Lens to identify new species she finds. Her searches have always involved a ritual: finding the spiritual meaning behind the plant.
“I learned that azaleas represented family and that it aligned with everything I was going through and feeling,” she explains. “Whatever I was carrying in my heart, my pain, my hurt, I just started cutting that stuff off the bush. It just started talking to me — the garden literally started talking to me. “
In early 2021, Richardson hired Ilka Rosales to work on landscaping works with Huma House. Rosales took landscaping classes while in prison and wanted to work with plants when she returned home in 2019 after serving 25 years.
“Just working out, it’s a breath of fresh air because I feel closer to God,” says Rosales, who has since moved on to other jobs. “It was just a big blob of trees and bushes but then when you go through it, it becomes like a song, it becomes like an art.”
As they worked together, Rosales and Richardson would assess progress on their ongoing projects. For Richardson, these talks were an opportunity to take forward what he had learned. For Rosales, spending time with Richardson was relaxing.
“It’s easy to have a relationship with someone who was previously incarcerated and still has the same fraternity,” says Rosales. “Like, I never knew Xenia, but meeting her, knowing her background was like me, it’s like we knew what each other needed.”
Since January, Richardson has been leading a program for children in the foster care system, some of whom are often in and out of juvenile custody, she says. Working with a grant through the McCarty Memorial Christian Church, Huma House provides a safe place for children, especially children exposed to gang activity, to find community.
Twice a month, five to 10 children visit the community garden. Richardson joins her mother in morning prayer. As the children arrive, she gathers them into a circle and discusses how they are feeling and describes the day’s activity, which could be planting flower seeds or tomatoes. Then the work starts. Children follow her lead as she demonstrates the planting process with a plant. She brings breakfast, trying to remember the children’s preferences. She encourages them to call if they ever need anything or just want to talk.
When they first came to the garden, the area was empty and dry. Every month, kids see it changing. “They were very happy with those sunflowers,” Richardson says. “When they saw that they had grown with their own hands, they went mad.”
They believe that the garden brings people together and changes perceptions in unexpected ways. Many encountered people locked in the garden with formerly prejudices and left with new friendships. Bringing people together through the garden is the new job of his life.
“Soil doesn’t discriminate,” Richardson says. “It doesn’t care about color, race, class or gender. It’s all about paying attention, working and making things grow.”