Labyrinth lessons: Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections in Northampton garden puts inmates on a good path

Last modified: Thursday, October 03, 2013

When your days are spent inside a jail cell, you welcome any time in the sunshine. Working at the Labyrinth at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Correction in Northampton provides an opportunity for inmates to get outside in a garden filled with colorful flowers, to walk the pathway and find serenity.

“I enjoy walking the Labyrinth. I got insight into my past and tried to plan my future goals,” said Wayne, a native of the Berkshires, who volunteers as a gardener for the labyrinth. His jail term won’t be over until 2019, but meanwhile he is recovering the self-esteem he said he lost as a boy. “I learn a lot about myself and about what I expect of myself,” Wayne added.

Inmates in this story are identified by first names only.

This is the third year for the labyrinth; it’s the first labyrinth at a jail or prison in the United States. It was first proposed by Sister Lorraine Villemaire, who lives at Mont Marie in Holyoke, which has a long-established labyrinth. She leads a 12-step program at the jail which revolves around the garden.

“The labyrinth is a path for transformation, a tool for change,” she explained. “The message is in the walking.”

A labyrinth is different than a maze, she is quick to point out. A maze is a puzzle with the possibility of many wrong turns and dead ends. A labyrinth has only one pathway and the way out is the same as the way in. There are many labyrinth designs but all consist of a single, circular path embedded in flat grounds, open to the sky without any hedge or fence. It is a symbol of life’s journey, a pilgrimage without travel to foreign places.

“I had some doubts about what it was all about,” admitted Sheriff Robert Garvey. “They took me to Mont Marie to experience the process. We had along a few inmates. I was so impressed by how it affected them that I became enthusiastic.”

Now, he says, he periodically walks the labyrinth himself.

“I just came in,” he said last week. “The grass is a bit wet out there but there are lovely fall flowers.”

At first, Sister Lorry used a portable labyrinth indoors for her program, but the men really wanted to have a full-size outdoor space. Garvey authorized Kathleen Callahan, community outreach coordinator to assist Sister Lorry in finding funding. They secured an anonymous grant of $16,000 to build the labyrinth.

Backbreaking work

The Hampshire County Jail labyrinth was designed by Patrick McKeogh, a landscape architecture student at the University of Massachusetts. The pathway is edged with raised beds of annuals, perennials, ornamental grasses and shrubs. Located in a far corner of the 26-acre jail property, just yards away from the fence topped with barbed wire that encloses the inmates, it is nonetheless a peaceful place of beauty.

The inmates built the stone labyrinth, helped install the irrigation system and planted the flowers. The process took three months of backbreaking work. It was a wet spring when they started and the men wore plastic bags as raincoats. “They worked in sun and mud, in heat and rain,” Callahan said.

“The most positive thing about the labyrinth is the positive response from the prison population,” Garvey said.

Two volunteers from Hadley helped plant the flowers and taught the men how to care for them. Debbie Windoloski, a Hadley landscape designer, gave planting advice and taught the men. Tony Kostek, whose garden was featured in Valley Gardens earlier this year, volunteers every Monday.

Wayne said he enjoys working with Kostek. “He’s amazing,” agreed Joshua from Ludlow, another inmate. “Mr. Kostek has a good relationship with the men,” Callahan said.

Right now the chrysanthemums, asters and annuals are in full bloom. For spring there are irises and peonies with phlox, Stokes aster, astilbe, daylilies and perennial salvia in the summer. Butterfly bushes are covered with bright butterflies. Pointing to a thriving marigold, Joshua said, “I like that yellow plant. It’s a pretty color, canary yellow.”

Robert, who worked as a landscaper “on the street,” said, “The smell of the flowers reminds me of my childhood in New Jersey. You get different flowers at different times; you sense the seasons.” Joshua added, “It’s pretty amazing how things grow so quickly.”

Wayne has learned that gardening isn’t easy. “It’s a lot of work. Those darn little weeds will get you every time.” Obviously the men are working hard for there wasn’t a weed to be seen in the beds.

‘Model for transformation’

The long pathway of flat stones covers an area 80 feet by 80 feet. The idea is to walk slowly along the path to the center where a sundial, donated by A2Z Science and Learning Store in Northampton, sits amid orange marigolds edged with boxwood.

According to the program, walking the pathway into the Labyrinth promotes relaxation

One should pause and reflect in the center, before retracing one’s footsteps back along the same path.

“One of the things the Labyrinth does is to be available to inmates in the treatment program,” explained Mindy Cary, treatment director. For those dealing with substance abuse, it is a good relaxation tool for stress management, she said.

“Most of these guys can’t sit still to meditate so a walking meditation is perfect,” she said.

The 12--week program for a dozen inmates at a time is “an educational model for transformation,” according to the title of Sister Lorry’s book, “A Labyrinth Program.” It is part of the residential substance-abuse life-skills program. Each week is a different theme, beginning with “An Introduction to the Labyrinth” in which the participants learn the history of the labyrinth including the one created in 1201 at Chartres Cathedral in France. They then progress to self-esteem, forgiveness, problem solving, humor and laughter, and, finally, spirituality and prayer.

The day the Gazette visited, the men had just finished the classroom part of their program and eagerly led the way outside to the labyrinth. They slowly walked the pathway, occasionally stopping to admire a flower or make a comment to a friend. But in general they were quiet and focused in this peaceful place.

Experienced gardeners know that working in a garden or just visiting one is a therapeutic experience. Pulling weeds is cathartic, planting seeds and bulbs is having faith in the future and watching things grow is very satisfying.

For the inmates of the Hampshire County Jail, there is another dimension to the labyrinth garden: “It’s a place where you can be a free man even though you are locked into a facility,” said Wayne as he leaned on a spade.

Cheryl Wilson can be reached at

The Labyrinth at the Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections is not open to the public. Visitors are welcome to visit the labyrinth at Mont Marie in Holyoke, by appointment. For information, visit or call 532-6134.


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