Program aims to improve SQ and develop skills for future jobs.
As rainfall pelted the dusty grounds of San Quentin last fall, several dozen incarcerated and free people gathered in the prison’s Protestant Chapel. They were not seeking a heavenly salvation. They wanted to preserve mankind’s future on this rapidly heating planet.
To them, it began with connection.
“If you think solar and wind power are the answers to our problems, you’re wrong,” said the incarcerated Sam Hearnes, a co-founder of The Green Life, an environmental program at the prison. “The greatest form of renewable energy is our relationships with each other,” he said to the program’s second graduating class.
The Green Life was born after CNN commentator Van Jones visited San Quentin in 2009. Jones, who was then an advisor to President Obama on environmental jobs, held forth in the chapel on ideas that he had championed in his book, Green Collar Economy, about how to create jobs in areas such as recycling and energy.
Jones had argued that those sorts of jobs would be perfect for former convicts, and wondered aloud why people weren’t given the same opportunities to recycle themselves as garbage.
“If a soda can can have a second chance, can a human being?” Jones had asked. A green life, he said, was “a return to wisdom,” a homage to ancestors who understood how to live harmoniously in their environment.
Incarcerated people are in a unique position to help when they recover from the crises that led them to prison, he argued. Knowledge from their personal recoveries could be used to help overcome the bigger crises outside.
“Some of the wisdom and genius we need is not going to be found on Wall Street,” said Jones. “It’s going to be found in this room.”
The program that evolved from that day consists of two dozen men meeting on Saturday nights in an interfaith chapel at the prison. All of the course participants choose a project to work on, such as a worm bin and composting project, aquaculture and water catchment system, solar projects and how to live a more conscious green life.
The men learn how to relate environmental issues into their incarceration, rehabilitation and return to their families. The lessons examine community building, environmental justice, sustainable living, zero waste and other ecological topics.
Six years after the first graduation and about 75 graduates later, program director Angela Sevin spoke of the results.
“I consider people who are in prison part of my community,” Sevin said. “If we are gonna survive on this planet with temperatures rising, with carbon parts per million over 350 — which is considered a trend toward an unlivable planet — we’re going to need all of our resources. And that means human resources to build resilience and come up with solutions.”
In Green Life, students deeply and profoundly embrace their interconnectedness with all living things. In turn, they are able to heal and transform the way they treat each other and the Earth by overcoming patterns of neglect and abuse.
“I go back into my world on the streets and have a better feeling about a stranger I might encounter on a day to day basis, whether they are Black or Brown or White,” Sevin said.
Green Life continues to work with participants after they’re released from prison into the Bay Area. It’s committed to providing resources, connections and additional training for workforce development (such as public speaking workshops and business trainings) and via its own partners, including Impact HUB Oakland, Uptima Business Bootcamp and Inner City
Advisors. Participants can get permaculture-design training and certification, are offered job referrals and various opportunities to work with a case manager. They can even work with Green Life’s partners to produce media about their work, access financial literacy, entrepreneurial training and build a therapeutic community support network among peers.
Co-founder Troy Williams, a powerful and intense man who paroled from San Quentin almost two years ago, was damp from his trips through the rain. Like the onetime cellies around him, he was unbothered by his wet clothes. Prison, he knew, accustoms one to discomfort.
Taking the stage during the ceremony, Williams told graduates that he had been skeptical about the relationship between criminal justice, prisons, and environmentalism.
“I thought, ‘What do I care about trees when people are dying where I’m from?’ ” he said. But reading Jones’ book “helped me understand: If I don’t care about the world that sustains us, how can I care about the people in the world?”
Williams also talked about how valuable incarcerated men’s voices and perspectives are. “Even though you don’t see how much you affect the outside world, a lot of people feel it. They might not know your name, but people know the work you are doing inside this prison.”
After Williams spoke, graduates Wesley Eisiminger and Lynn Beyett presented their project, a plan to conserve water at the prison. California was drought-plagued at the time and as a result, showers in San Quentin had been limited to three days a week.
Eisiminger and Beyett proposed a catchment system that uses rain runoff from the rooftops of buildings in San Quentin. For each 1,000 sq. ft. of roofing, the system would gather 600 gallons per inch of rainfall. San Quentin could use the water for irrigation during the summer months to support the prison’s gardens and fields.
Changing gears, a graduate named Seth Harding talked about how the first step toward a greener world can begin with literally walking greener.
Harding’s prison blues folded around his bird-like frame, and his eyes glinted with excitement above a wild, white beard as he demonstrated a natural way to walk. According to him, “walking correctly” reduces stress and damage to joints. He said early Homo sapiens walked in this way, and learning to “walk green” is the first step on a larger journey back to a greener life.
Whether San Quentin’s administration can implement a catchment system, or whether an octogenarian’s prescription for better walking becomes a standard on the yard, the Green Life crew seemed to feed on each other’s energy and ideas.
“I am always amazed by the wisdom and insight of people cut off from society,” said Tamira Jones, a representative from Earth Island Institute, which fiscally sponsors The Green Life, who sat in the audience.
“To have the time and opportunity to contemplate the choices we make and our impact on the world feels like a luxury for most, but in prison, it’s a daily imposed reality. To propose a right way, or even an improved way of living on the Earth, through consuming resources, or being a good steward, is a means of restoring a relationship, contributing to a solution and being of good use,” Jones said. “This is vital for a man who has been paying the price of past mistakes for decades and lost all ability to make choices, have free will, or participate in society.”
Graduates are experiencing not just reconciliation with their environment — there, too, is another powerful kind of reconciliation: with oneself. Sustainability, zero waste and conservation are ideas that powerfully enhance a prisoner’s rehabilitative journey: to build community with others and with their planet.
To learn more about the Green Life program, or if you would like to support any of these viable ideas for sustainable projects inside San Quentin and opportunities for people in re-entry, contact Green Life Project Director Angela Sevin at email@example.com or go to earthisland.org/index.php/projects/green-life