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


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.


Liliana “Lily”, 30

Liliana “Lily”, 30

Meet Liliana “Lily”…

I witnessed an awe-inspiring sense of beauty and tranquility…”

Liliana, 30

Incarcerated: 5 years

Housed: San Quentin

After graduating from UC Santa Barbara in 2015, I made it a point to travel to Japan, a land I’ve always been fascinated with since childhood.  I fell in love with the capital of Tokyo, from the fresh sushi at the Tsukiji fish market, to the nerd haven of Akihabara, and the bustling nightlife in Shibuya. I’d eventually make these trips an annual thing, but what truly stood out to me was in the spring of 2017, when my visit happened to coincide with the cherry blossom viewing season or “Hanami.” Throughout this two week period, I witnessed an awe-inspiring sense of beauty and tranquility, though one spot in particular stood out to me the most, Veno park, where picnickers gathered en masse between the grand aisle lined with cherry blossom trees. There everyone seemed so carefree within the festive vibe, a welcome respite from the stress of daily life. Local fare was in abundance from Yakitori noodles to Takoyaki octopus balls and Asahi and Kirin beers to wash it all down. One day, I’ll be back.

Mike G., 28

Mike G., 28

Meet Mike G…

 “Today after a lot of healing and participation in self-help groups, I finally feel free.”

Mike G., 28

Incarcerated: 8 years

Housed: San Quentin

Growing up my childhood was very unstable, my father was an alcoholic, it took a toll on my family. At 11, my older brother and I started running the streets, he was 14. We were very close, I looked at him as a father figure, he was all I had. When I was 18, my brother was murdered. The only father figure I had was snatched from me in a very traumatic way. I was the last man standing in my family, it was my responsibility to look after my mom and two sisters, but I couldn’t, I was a mess! After my brother died, something changed in me, I was in a very dark place, the pain I felt was eating at me. I never gave myself the chance to grieve and deal with my emotions. I was a ticking time bomb, and unfortunately, I did blow up. Today after a lot of healing and participation in self-help groups, I finally feel free. Ironic right? I feel free while in prison, but for so many years I built my own prison inside of myself. And today I feel blessed, I have a beautiful family that loves me. One thing my brother’s passing did for my family, is that it brought us closer. Being vulnerable is something new for me and it’s liberating. Thank you for this opportunity to be heard.


Chris, 53

Meet Chris…

“It was about the six seconds of compassion that my foster sister showed me and the courage to let her compassion flow through me.”

Chris, 53

Incarcerated: 17 years

Housed: San Quentin

I was shocked. My words had betrayed me. Words that rose from a place I didn’t know existed, “I’ll cut your hair,” I offered, and with those words, I violated the hard knocks street rule of minding my own business. Yet, it didn’t feel like I had broken a cardinal rule. It felt, well … right, like I was connected to this man’s suffering in a way that reminded me of my own. He was thin and unimposing. He had an unkempt afro and a long, ragged beard. All he wanted was a haircut so he could appear presentable before a judge the next day. Yet, none of the barbers would touch him. He couldn’t afford to pay for the store items they wanted. That’s when those four fateful words leaped from my mouth and landed in his ear. He turned to look at me and told me that he didn’t have any way to pay me. “That’s okay,” I said. I then spent the next three hours meticulously trimming his hair and beard. I had no experience as a barber, but that didn’t matter. All that mattered was to humanize him to the judge, to himself, and to the barbers who had written him off. I know what it’s like to be written off; to be forgotten. My childhood and prison sentence tell me so. He shook my hand and thanked me, expressing gratitude towards a man that not even I had ever met. Something shifted inside of me as a result of that experience. It blessed me with a life-changing glimpse of the man I wanted to become: compassionate, connected, and courageous. Fourteen years have passed since that day and I have been cutting hair for free ever since. Each haircut lures me deeper, more intimately into my humanness and that of others. Every conversation reveals our sameness and stirs within me a deep sense of remorse for the harm I caused to people who were just like me.

Michael, 40

Michael, 40

Meet Michael…

“What I do know and am sure of, is that night despite being discarded by family, left to fend for ourselves, scared, uncertain of our future, and up against the world. We banded together, faced whatever came our way, and prevailed as a family.”

Michael, 40

Incarcerated: 12 years

I’ve never felt so afraid, rejected, or abandoned in my life. The things I’ve endured no one, let alone a child, should have to experience. What makes matters worse is that my younger sister Connie, and little brother Josh, are also with me. We were in Sacramento, California, starving in an abandoned duplex our mother was renting before her arrest. The electricity was just shut off, there was no food in the refrigerator, and we were camped out in our mother’s room. The three of us were cold, hungry, and confused. What was I going to do? How were we going to survive? My 14 year old brain was overloaded with questions that I didn’t have answers for. My mother has been incarcerated for a few months now and our aunt, who was supposed to be caring for us, had abandoned us a couple weeks earlier. I was so hurt and angry at her. My other two siblings and their father had driven away leaving us all alone on the porch. I’m brought out of my thoughts by brother Josh’s voice, “I’m hungry, what are we going to eat?” Before I can answer, my sister Connie says, “Mike, I know where some money is. Remember when I dropped a dollar in one of the bedposts?” As she says this, she jumps up and heads to the room we shared before our lives were turned upside down. The three of us went to work on that white headboard with red trim as if we were a demolition crew. With the help of a wire hanger and some scissors we retrieved that dollar bill as it was a long last treasure. Along with some loose change we scraped up from all over the house, we were able to buy something to eat for the night. I’m not sure exactly what we bought from the store other than a bag of potato chips. What I do know and am sure of, is that night despite being discarded by family, left to fend for ourselves, scared, uncertain of our future, and up against the world. We banded together, faced whatever came our way, and prevailed as a family. I’ll never forget that night and 26 years later, myself, Connie, and Josh continue to beat the odds, we are there for one another, and we come out on top.

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