Raheem, 46

Raheem, 46

Meet Raheem..

“As each bird flew off with a piece of bread, I would get the feeling that I was doing my part, that I was playing a small role in a much larger picture. In the process, I couldn’t help but think that they were flying off with a piece of me too.”

Raheem, 46

Incarcerated: 16 years

WHEN FEEDING THE BIRDS IS A CRIME

One of the deepest regrets I have as a prisoner is that, when I was free, I spent most of my adult life detached from the beauty of the natural world. I was born in Buffalo, home to some of the harshest winters, a place that still reflects the era of steel mills and abandoned manufacturing plants. My early memories of engaging with nature involve encounters with law enforcement. In Coconut Grove, the area of Miami where I lived, playing on the Atlantic coastline often meant being picked up by police. The beach areas were marked “PRIVATE PROPERTY.” I learned that nature was private and exclusive, that it belonged to those with wealth. I moved again, to San José in the mid-80s, where the same dynamic played out.

Being raised on the West Coast certainly provided me with many opportunities to explore nature. However, I wasn’t always enthused by or able to take advantage of them. Aside from occasional camping and fishing trips with my father, my contact with nature was sporadic at best, a lot of this had to do with how crowded and congested San José was. With the emergence of the tech industry in Silicon Valley, there was always a need to take up more space-all to speed up economic growth. Visiting the few areas that did exist for outdoor exploration, like creeks and mountain regions, usually came at a cost. I can still remember being shot at with salt pellets by park rangers for strolling through a wooded area near my house; it was a shortcut and safe haven for kids who cut school. According to city officials, this area was private property. Looking back, it was a biological Eden, teeming with different life forms; there were gophers, salamanders, frogs, and creepy spiders that descended inconspicuously from strange trees. Unfortunately, previous experiences on private land helped to deter me from fully connecting with uninhabited spaces-thus creating a mental fence which equated nature with confrontation. 

While in high school, most of my time was spent playing sports. If I wasn’t doing that, I was chasing the girls in my neighborhood. At the same time, I was slowly moving towards a destructive street culture, one that normalized crime, violence, and drugs. It was this antisocial behavior that contributed to my self-centered ideas. Everything was about my emerging ego, which excluded everyone else (including nature). Eventually, my actions, in conjunction with a flawed belief system, led me to prison.

This was a tipping point: either I could plummet further into a world that justified harming others, or I could let go of the pride and selfishness I’d held onto for years.

When I arrived at Pelican Bay Prison in 2005, I didn’t receive a warm welcome. There is a reason for that: it’s one of California’s most violent prisons. After months of solitary confinement, I was finally able to reckon with the fact that I had deprived my victim’s family of peace, along with my own family and community, and ultimately, myself. In part, it was due to a raging war inside of me, one based on years of guilt, pain, and insecurities.

In the process of putting the pieces of my life back together, I started studying the religion of Islam, which comes from the word, “Silm,” meaning “Peace.” One of the first things that resonated with me about this faith was its obligation to give charity-giving unconditionally to those who are less fortunate. I would later learn that this aspect of charity wasn’t just confined to human beings; but to everything in creation.

The more I internalized this concept, the more I began to realize that my detachment and self-interest was only serving as a barrier to the greater external world that I am a part of. I was starting to examine my humanity through a different lens-a unifying factor that connected me to everything living.

Some years later, when I was transferred to another prison, I noticed that there were some small birds flying around in the building. The fact that they couldn’t get out of a single door that only opened a few times a day made them prisoners just like me. I tried to imagine their hunger, thirst, and frustration with seeing freedom through windows, but not being able to obtain it. I whistled through a small crack in my door, hoping to somehow get their attention. “Man, them damn birds ain’t gonna fly over here to you,” my cellmate said while lying on the top bunk. He laughed for a few seconds, with an annoying smirk; he couldn’t wait to prove me wrong. But just then, a few of them responded with curious chirps of their own as they flew several feet from my door. Shocked, I quickly reached for a pack of bread on my locker; I crumbled up a slice and threw it under my door. Each bird took a piece in a hurry, chirping once again as they took flight. “I’ll be damned!” my cellmate replied. I smiled, as a warmth moved through my body.

Over the years, I continued this habit of feeding the birds at other prisons_not the seagulls that crap on you when you least expect it, or the pigeons that feast in a flock, but the finches and tiny song birds. They nest outside in nearby trees, or high up in mud pebble shelters attached close to the roof of my building. Eventually, this small gesture allowed me to reconnect with my inner nature, although confined to a limited world. This reconnection became spiritual, even compassionate. As each bird flew off with a piece of bread, I would get the feeling that I was doing my part, that I was playing a small role in a much larger picture. In the process, I couldn’t help but think that they were flying off with a piece of me too.

Despite my efforts to help sustain life and reconnect with the natural world, there is one little thing I left out. Feeding the birds, geese, pigeons, or any other type of animal in prison is against the rules. It can be deemed a disciplinary infraction and result in a “write-up.” Sadly, while performing my janitorial duties the other day, I was caught breaking this rule by my boss, a high ranking officer in corrections. “Now why would you want to go and get yourself a write-up for that?” There was a slight sense of humor in his tone, which made it difficult to tell if he was being serious. A part of me was convinced that he wasn’t, because most officers wouldn’t waste the ink, effort, or paper to type up such an infraction. I stood under the tall tree with birds at my feet for a few seconds, completely puzzled. Nevertheless, I immediately stopped and reported to my job assignment.

After following the officer into the office a couple minutes later, I asked for a mask, like I did every morning since they began giving them out to limit the spread of COVID-19. He reached for the bag of masks and nearly handed me one, but the incident with the bird crossed his mind. “Oh no!” he said, as he shocked his head with a look of contempt. “You were feeding the birds.” He can’t possibly be serious, I thought to myself.

Sensing his irritation, I stood up straight, and said, “Hey man! You said it wasn’t cool to feed the birds. That’s when I stopped-that was the end of it.” The officer was now standing up behind his desk, insisting that I pack up my belongings, the coffee cup, newspaper, and sack lunch that I arrived with every morning. He was going to personally escort me back to West-block, my housing unit. As we walked down the long concrete path to my building in silence, a rage swelled up inside of me: my heart pounded furiously, a tightness in my chest made it hard to breathe. My light brown complexion had suddenly been hijacked by an instant flush. Here I was being criminalized for a simple act of kindness- an act that often provided me with moments of solace, an act that I was now being robbed of.

Although I didn’t receive a write-up for this incident, I thought about it for several days; it troubled me deeply.

But why? After thinking it over, a bigger picture began to emerge. This story is bigger than the birds under the tree that I was feeding. It was about a California Department of Corrections  number and a prison ID that had deemed me incapable of any act of mercy or compassion. The underlying message was now clear to me: You don’t have the right to be humane or empathetic to anything inside or outside of these walls! In all honesty, I may have forfeited my freedom, but never my right to care or reconnect with the elements of nature that make me feel whole. To believe that, is to say that I am incapable of redeeming myself, which ultimately points to a conflict in the current standards of rehabilitation. According to these standards, I’m supposed to be accountable, remorseful and empathetic. Based on this logic, I am troubled by any policy, whether implied or explicit, that promotes the idea of me being less than human and incapable of change. If this holds true, even if just for a moment in the minds of prison officials, then the prison system itself becomes guilty of pouring enormous amounts of energy and funding into rehabilitative programs that the incarcerated community will never be able to apply.

Although I’m still confined behind huge concrete walls and iron gates, I take solace in the few moments that I do have each day to honor the natural beauty in things. Whether it’s a California Condor soaring above or new geese hatchlings that walk on the prison yard for the first time, I’m reminded of how precious life is. Even the way the sun shines through a dark cloud some days is enough to leave me awestruck. And although still inside, I’m comforted by a feeling of not being alone.

As far as my job, I QUIT! It was never about the 24 cents an hour they were paying me. It was all about the birds, nature, and restoring a part of me that had been lost for far too long.

 

Cameron, 39

Cameron, 39

Cameron, 39

Meet Cameron…

“What comes to mind is peace, and a sense that everything is going to be ok. What comes to mind is, that what’s in the past needs to stay there if I want to have a future, if I want to be grateful for today and for the fact that I am no longer the person I once was.”

Cameron, 39

Incarcerated: 13

Housed: Correctional Training Facility, California

SOFT IN A HARD PLACE

Prisons are not soft and cuddly. 

All across the world prisons are built from cement and steel. They are stocked with hard people doing hard time and ruled with iron fists. In a place where toughness is mandatory and brutality is a virtue, those who do not affect a spiritual exoskeleton and fashion their minds and bodies into weapons held ever ready to fend off the assaults of a hostile world that values strength alone are seen as lesser, as contemptible, as objects of scorn, as prey.

Perhaps prison could have persisted indefinitely. Perhaps these hard places filled with granite hearts and iron wills would never crumble. Perhaps these mean lives born out in the closest proximity to our fellow humans, these callous existences devoid of compassion where we could not so much as acknowledge the struggle, the despair, the suffering of those beside us as they were subjected to the same indignities and cruelties that we were, could have kept on without diverging, and the prison mentality could have maintained its crushing grasp upon us, enforced its illogical directive that humans – a species by all accounts predisposed to seek softness, warmth, and comfort, not stone and steel and solitude – be hard, be cold, be heartless.

Perhaps. But then there were cats.

At first there was just one, a wary orange tabby that prowled the yard between human hours and haunted the forbidden spaces beyond the fences like the phantom of a world long forgotten. We watched from behind glass and steel and wire and cement, watched her romp about, watched her chase birds and share a meal with us. She grew, fed both by pigeons and state food offered by many hands, though in time we realized it was not the meager scraps of unidentifiable meat which made her fat.

The blessing she bestowed upon us for our gifts was delivered, appropriately enough, in an unused locker on the yard’s religious grounds. From the moment the litter of kittens arrived, there existed a covenant among all her feeders and fawners and fans: we shall belong to these cats.

Thus the ensuing weeks were heavy with the sounds of crinkling plastic as not just state food but canteen and package morsels were brought to the site of the pilgrimage, set like sacrifices upon the altar of this mysterious beast who walked among us. We watched in quiet awe from behind our stoic masks as the kittens opened their eyes and emerged to take their first steps, as they explored the world they now shared with us and grew into rambunctious, playful beings of wonder.

Then, of course, we pet them.

I had not until a small orange cat wandered over to sit with me in the grass, had the divine pleasure of petting a cat in fifteen years. I am a writer by trade but to describe the experience leaves me scrabbling for words. Simply, it reminded me that I am alive. It instilled in me a raw, unbridled happiness that I had never felt, not even as a child. I spent many hours with those cats and still, I am amazed at how perfectly they reject everything it means to be in prison: they are playful and unselfconscious, curious and silly, soft and cuddly and so damned schmoofy that if I had a thousand of them I would delight in being buried alive. But even one is bliss.

Sometimes it is even more interesting to watch the interactions of my fellow prisoners with our cats. All those hard cases doing hard time melt like butter on a summer sidewalk when they visit the cats, when they feed them and watch the chasing bees and birds when they make toys to entice the cats to play with them (as I have done – it is too fun for words.) Engaging with a fluffy ball of innocence that offers no judgment whatsoever, stony visages finally bear smiles.

And I understand. I don’t think about the past when a cat hops in my lap. I don’t think of what I should or could have done. I don’t think about courts or life sentences or parole boards. What comes to mind is peace and a sense that everything is going to be ok. What comes to mind is that what’s in the past needs to stay there if I want to have a future, if I want to be grateful for today, and for the fact that I am no longer the person I once was.

The cats, of course, already know this, but they are gracious enough to spend their time with us so that we might learn, and so that we can enjoy a few quiet moments of warmth, of softness, of non-judgment. Of freedom.

Every prison should have cats.

Ray, 42

Ray, 42

Meet Ray…

“I’m grateful for this God given gift of being able to draw and create what’s on my mind, more so what’s in my heart”

Ray, 42

Incarcerated: 23 years

Housed: California State Prison, Vacaville

Art is Life. Art is wonderful, soothing, the great escape, but I must mention the golden aspect: art is open for interpretation and all interpretation is valued! As an artist I get asked a well known question, “How long have you been drawing?” My response, since I was five. But as I reflect back on some of the artwork that captivated my attention, it came from prison. My cousin’s boyfriend sent her a hand-made Mickey Mouse card. Mickey had a tank top on, Jacky’s and some Nike Cortez’s on his feet, looking and standing banged out… and that card was drawn in ink pen. Another piece of artwork came from my uncle, he sent my aunt a hand-made card with a car drawn on a piece of filing folder, and the car was a “Monte Carlos” with a tent on the windows and Dayton wire wheels also drawn in ink pen. These pieces of artwork motivated me to keep drawing over and over until I reached some resemblances. Throughout my childhood I’ve had my fair share of getting in trouble and the majority of the time being on punishment, I spent drawing. Now as аn adult being on punishment (incarcerated), my time is devoted to working in the Delancey Street Restaurant, in groups, painting, drawing creatures and practicing with other mediums. But overall I’m grateful for this God given gift of being able to draw and create what’s on my mind, more so what’s in my heart.

Jon’s Gallery

Jon’s Gallery

 

Artist Jon

Jon

Jon, 42 years old

Incarcerated: 7 years

I  found Christ and my spiritual life has grown along with my faith and hope. I am sharing with Humans of San Quentin to give back and hopefully share some smiles, positivity, and inspire others. I love volunteering and giving back. I never sell any of my work. The rewards come with smiles, laughter, and the possibility you could change the direction of someone’s difficult day. The painting I created started with a project that went from the walls of my cell to canvas. I have always been good with my hands fixing and innovating. When I find something that makes me happy I share it in hopes it will bring joy to others. With patience and peace good things will find you. You are worth it, never give up! My family wanted to see my paintings so I had to put them on canvas so I could mail them home. HoSQ gives me the opportunity to share my work with not only my family but anyone that wants to see. Thank you for the wonderful opportunity to rediscover a little HUMANITY.

Roy Lee, 68

Roy Lee, 68

humans_roy_202309_chowchillastateprison_12

Meet Roy Lee…

The powers that be, have no idea all the good teachings Stacy did for people.

Roy Lee, 68
Incarcerated: 45 years
Housed: Valley State Prison, Chowchilla, CA

I met a lady pushing a shopping cart through Quentin. It was full of art supplies, she stopped at all the cells and asked if I’d like to draw. From that point on she’d stop by every week and give me pointers. Twenty some years and three prisons later, I met with Stacy Hay, five days a week, in her classroom in the Arts in Corrections building and learned something new. She taught me that after three days of beating Mulberry bark with wooden hammers I could make paper. She taught me how to make hard back books from scratch. I learn mosaic art for a number of mascot projects for nearby schools. I sat with her for hours talking and watching her paint. Her paintings were beautiful, she could keep up with the best of them, she taught me momo printing. The flier I added was of a momo print I did of celtic knot work.

You draw out what you want, cut them out, ink them up, place them on a sheet of fiberglass, with a sheet of damp printing paper over it and run it through a press. She was one of the main driving forces in my life that has kept me upright. I brought music to her to copy for her shop, she was like an old hippy from the early 70’s, I brought Alanis Morissette. Her first CD was kind of racy. One day her husband was a visiting artist and he asked as he was sweating me, “Why do you give my ol lady stuff like that to play?” I remember telling him, it’s time to come out of the 60’s and move forward. It hurt to be moved from that prison. I heard right after I left they shut down the Arts in Corrections program. The powers that be, have no idea all the good teachings Stacy did for people. I’ve spent many years trying to give back, but with this system, it is sort of like the old west, once you are put in one spot, that is it! Like the old gunfighters who are not allowed to hang up your guns, but I will keep pushing forward with hope in my heart and peace in my soul.

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