Living the Green Life – Behind Bars

California’s San Quentin State Prison is a tough place to live. The prison’s North Block is home to 700-plus men who have been convicted of a range of offenses – from petty theft to brutal murder. Throughout the day the block hums with activity like a beehive. The men kill time by playing cards, chess, and dominos. Each morning the buzzing begins once again with a beeline of men headed to the chow hall. The routine never wanders – day by day, week by week, eons of the same.

photo of a man standing near a chainlink fence

The boredom is made worse by the cramped conditions. The skinny, six-by-nine cells are stuffed with two men who usually can just barely tolerate each other. The tiers are crammed with more than 80 cells. There are five tiers of cells, but we never see the top tier. That’s Death Row.

Psychologists say the lack of normal socialization has affected the inmates in ways indescribable. “North Block is a place that induces catatonic contractions of the human spirit,” says Richard Lindsey, a convict who has been housed in North Block for seven years.

Nevertheless, many of the men are pleased they are here, as opposed to other state prisons. That’s because San Quentin has more than 70 programs designed to help offenders rehabilitate themselves. I am involved with three such programs. I learned the fundamentals of academic writing through the prison’s college program. In Zoe Mullery’s creative writing workshop I crafted stories from the point of view of the underclass. The program that has the greatest impact on me – and, I believe, is impacting you and the rest of the world – is called The Green Life of San Quentin.

You might find it strange that someone like me is interested in the environment. Why would a convict care about things like soil, air, and water? But consider this: Incarcerated men and women must constantly struggle, in a way most people don’t, for a decent living environment. Things like showers, clean clothes, and regular checkups with health professionals are, on the whole, limited. We can’t choose what we want to eat. We can’t decide how we want to live. The scarcity of everyday resources is made worse by the fact that every inch of our lives is under the microscope.

My imprisonment sparked in me a new interest in issues of environmental justice. Looking from the bottom up, what I see is dire. And here I sit, with nothing better to do than to pay attention. But at the very least I can be like the hummingbird in Wangari Maathai’s parable of the forest fire – doing whatever I can, even if it’s very little. And the one thing I can do is to help educate my fellow inmates about the plight of our planet.

Over the course of two years, participants in the Green Life were visited by some of the leading environmentalists in the San Francisco Bay Area. People like Van Jones, Julia “Butterfly” Hill, Bill Twist of the Pachamama Alliance, and Kevin Danaher from Global Exchange. Green Life co-directors Angela Sevin and Pandora Thomas used unorthodox teaching methods like singing and meditation to connect us with the earth in ways we never thought possible. We learned about climate change, permaculture, sustainable economies, and renewable energy.

Those lessons changed my life. For example, when I learned about the amount of energy that it takes to produce meat, my eating habits changed. About five months ago I gave up eating red meat. My new diet made me healthier. More importantly, I feel empowered knowing that I am improving the environment by reducing the amount of energy spent feeding me.

The Green Life curriculum was developed to teach incarcerated men the importance of a healthy relationship with Earth, the idea being that the tenets of ecological sustainability (connectedness, wholeness) are similar to the task of personal rehabilitation. I can say that it has worked. The fact that prisoners care about the world so much as to reduce their environmental footprint is remarkable – especially considering we are treated as disposable by society. Finally, at the age of 56, my traumatic life, full of open wounds, is being cured through encounters with compassionate people and a new sense of purpose.

Juan Haines is managing editor of San Quentin News. In 1996 he was convicted of bank robbery and is serving a 55 years-to-life sentence.

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