By Nicole Deane
When Bilal was 17 years old, he was sentenced to prison for 20 years. Before he was old enough to vote, he was taken away from his family and community and sent to live in a window-less cage. At one point during his 20 years in San Quentin State Prison, Bilal endured 7 continuous months of solitary confinement. His mother, who he calls his best friend, passed away 3 months before his release in November of 2015. He was not permitted to visit her before she died.
I met Bilal a few days after he finally walked out of San Quentin a free man. It’s hard to describe how it feels to watch someone come back to the world after doing time in one of the most violent prison systems in the history of the world. Every single time I ask him how he’s doing, his face cracks into a huge grin and he says, “I’m havin’ a blast!” Just being outside – something I take for granted all the time – feels like a miracle when you’ve been locked up for 20 years.
14 days after Bilal’s release, I watched while Anthony, the first guy we ever hired out of San Quentin 5 years ago, showed him around our garden at McClymond’s High School. He instructed Bilal to tear of a leaf of basil and smell it, “What does that give you the memory of?”
“Grandma,” Bilal murmured softly.
“And? What else?”
Bilal looked up from his basil-induced reverie, confused.
“You just had it yesterday.”
Bilal thought, smelled the basil again, then smiled, “Pizza.”
Several weeks later, our whole organization drove to River’s Bend Retreat Center to spend the weekend together. That Saturday morning, his 73rd day of freedom, Bilal and I took a walk through field and forest.
“I am not inside of a prison wall right now, can you believe it? It’s day 73, and I’m in the middle of nowhere, with no guns pointed at me, no gates….YEAH!”
When I asked him what he wished people knew about “violent criminals” (Bilal’s official designation in this society), he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I am human. I am gentle. I do not deserve to be thrown away.”
I work at Planting Justice, a small Oakland non-profit that hires guys coming out of prison at $17.50/hr to build fruit & vegetable gardens in neighborhoods where produce is not accessible. I love working at PJ because I get to spend every day surrounded by people who are trying to get free. Free from criminalization, imprisonment, political & economic disenfranchisement, hunger, violence, drugs, and death – things that have doggedly followed each of my formerly incarcerated co-workers since the day they were born.
To my fellow white folks out there – as white people, it can be easy to think that the criminalization, imprisonment, political & economic disenfranchisement, hunger, suffering and death of Black people here in the United States and around the world has nothing to do with us. I am here to tell you that it has everything to do with us – and we need to get free, too.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to live in a world that treats poor people like they’re disposable. I think an economic system that relies on warehousing millions of “surplus workers” in jails & prisons to function is a garbage economy that needs to be radically transformed. It is not okay with me when the police regularly shoot and kill poor Black & Brown people where I live. I hate seeing the bulk of my tax dollars go to building bombs and prisons while I watch my neighbors struggle to access food and shelter, much less health care, education, and good jobs. These things break God’s heart, and they break mine too. This stuff that keeps me up at night – I bet most of you can probably relate.
But this is the world we live in.
The question, is what are we going to do about it?
I’ve been trying to do something about it for the last 5 years. I’ve protested, marched, spoken at city council meetings & legislative hearings, written prisoners in solitary confinement, written policy papers, had meetings with politicians, gathered petition signatures, registered voters, facilitated workshops, shut down highways, transportation systems, bridges and police stations, gotten arrested, been to jail myself. Those are all good and important things to do, and I’m grateful to everyone who does that work on a daily basis.
A year ago, I started working with Planting Justice. We aren’t engaged in traditional “political organizing work” – building community political power to influence decision-makers to change policies to better serve the community. We’re doing something different – we’re building a new food system and a new economy grounded in the values of health, freedom, justice and self determination.
We start inside San Quentin State Prison, where we partner with the Insight Garden Program to train prisoners in permaculture design. We teach a class outside in the garden at San Quentin every Friday, working on everything from meditation and mindfulness to actually learning how to grow food. For people who are locked up, getting into the garden class is a big deal because it gives them the chance to get outside in the sunshine, put their hands in the dirt, and actually grow food and receive training. California spends over $10 BILLION on prisons every year, but San Quentin is the only prison (out of 36 across the state) that has a program like this.
Once a prisoner graduates from our garden program and gets released on parole, we hire them at Planting Justice at a starting wage of $17.50/hour – $5.25 higher than the minimum wage in Oakland. For these guys, a job like this basically a ticket to freedom. If a formerly incarcerated person cannot get a legal job that pays enough for them to fully support themselves financially, they will have to find another way to survive. The unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people in Oakland is 70% — think it’s a coincidence that the unemployment rate is the same as the recidivism rate? The #1 thing a person transitioning home from prison needs is a good job. Because we actually pay a living wage, people one parole can really depend on their job at Planting Justice to cover their rent, bills & necessities without needing to engage in the extra-legal economy to survive and advance financially. In an economy that systematically devalues, under-employs and underpays formerly incarcerated people, our $17.50/hour starting wage is a political statement that the labor of former prisoners is valuable and that their success and well-being is a worthy investment.
A job at Planting Justice isn’t just a paycheck — it’s an opportunity to be a part of a growing movement to transform our food system so that everyone has access to healthy food and the ability to live a long, healthy life. Can you imagine spending 10 years in prison, then coming out and getting paid a living wage to build vegetable gardens in the neighborhood you used to sell drugs in? Meaningful, community-serving work can help heal a formerly incarcerated person’s relationship to the neighborhood in a powerful way. We’ve watched men who’ve served hard time transform into impressive educators and skilled community organizers, inspiring classrooms full of Oakland teens to grow, cook and eat vegetables and signing up thousands of monthly donors to support Planting Justice’s work.
After years of fighting mass incarceration at the policy level, working with Planting Justice has been a huge game changer for me because we’re actually implementing solutions that directly impact, transform, and benefit people’s lives. The crazy thing is, every guy who has successfully stayed out of prison because of Planting Justice says that if he had access to a job like this, he never would have gone to prison in the first place. I think Planting Justice has a deep understanding of the prison problem in our country, understanding how it’s tied to brokenness of our economy.
The reality is, the vast majority of the people who are locked up in prisons across this country right now should not be there. The vast majority of people who are in imprisoned right now committed crimes of survival – when you (and most people you know) are locked out of the legal economy (or the only job you can get it something precarious that pays minimum wage, and doesn’t offer enough hours or benefits or opportunities to advance), your options are extremely limited. My coworkers aren’t these dangerous, violent, criminal monsters – not at all. When I hear them talk about how they ended up in prison, I hear them expressing pain and regret about doing things they didn’t want to do to survive.
It doesn’t have to be like this. If we can build a moral food economy – that prioritizes the health, well-being and dignity of the planet, food workers, and food consumers, and provides meaningful, living-wage careers for people who would otherwise be at risk for criminalization and incarceration – we can make the prison system as we know it obsolete. The food system is a huge lever for healing our fractured society plagued by poor nutrition, racism and lost opportunity for millions of good people.
I’m excited to be working to raise $100,000 for Planting Justice to start a project that will greatly expand the scope and scale of our work – creating dozens more jobs for formerly incarcerated people and even helping formerly incarcerated farmers buy their own land and start their own businesses. The Planting Justice way is not about asking powerful, wealthy people to fix our problems for us (especially since it’s those same powerful, wealthy people who created this situation in the first place!) – it’s about working with regular people who are willing to do something to help build a better world. As a Christian, I see my work at Planting Justice as a real opportunity to partner with God and God’s people to bring about God’s dream for humanity here on Earth – health, freedom, justice, and peace for all of God’s children. I want to invite anyone reading this to join us in this mission to abolish food deserts and recidivism (return to prison after release) by donating to this kickstarter, sharing it with your friends, and/or praying for us as we embark on this exciting, scary, high-stakes, game-changing project:
Author Bio: Nicole Deane is a community organizer and follower of the revolutionary Jesus. 3 years ago, she left her childhood dream job at Pixar Animation Studios to pursue organizing full time. Since then, she’s worked on successful campaigns to abolish indefinite solitary confinement in California prisons, prevent the city of San Francisco from building a $450 million new jail, and raise the minimum wage in the city she lives in (Oakland, CA). When she’s not busy trying to make the world suck less, Nicole enjoys root beer floats, reading outside, and playing with her cat, Sugar.