Finding a Green Life, Behind Bars

Finding a Green Life, Behind Bars

At San Quentin State Prison, environmental outreach is based on the principle that nothing should be carelessly thrown away—especially a human life.

Photo Credit: Tom Bolema

In Marin County, California, no one is surprised that environmental awareness is taught to preschoolers. But even the most avid hybrid-driving, kitchen-scrap-composting, hemp-cloth-wearing diehard would be surprised that, a mere stone’s throw away, it is also being taught behind the grim walls of one the country’s most famous prisons.

The Green Life at San Quentin—which organizers describe as the only program of its kind in the country—is slowly, quietly launching its own kind of green revolution, thanks to some dedicated volunteers who believe that every inmate can benefit from learning about both global and personal ecology.

“We talk a lot about the concept of connection: to each other, to self, and then reconnecting to the environment,” says Pandora Thomas, coleader of the program. “These men are inspiring in their ability to grasp this, despite their difficult surroundings.”

While meeting a journalist in Berkeley, California, Thomas and her coleader, Angela Sevin, proudly show newspaper clippings—the latest being coverage of the first-ever Green Life graduation this past November. To Thomas and Sevin, the graduation represented the culmination of four years of hard work and determination; to an outsider, it seems miraculous.

After all, lifers whose criminal histories have consigned them to a maximum security prison might not seem the most obvious candidates to learn about aquaponics, permaculture, or composting. But to Thomas and Sevin, there is poetry in the idea that you should think before you discard something . . . or someone.

“If we can give a second chance to a can of a soda pop, why not a human being?” says Sevin, referencing a quote by environmental and civil rights advocate Van Jones.

Since Green Life began in 2009 as a program of San Quentin’s North Block peer educator group, Thomas and Sevin have facilitated an array of speakers, lectures, and classes for inmates, covering everything from waste management and recycling to green building, energy resources, water and air quality, parks and open spaces, biodiversity, environmental justice, and public policy. Speakers have included activist Julia Butterfly Hill, Pachamama Alliance President Bill Twist, and Dedan Gills, poet and cofounder of Growing a Global Heart.

Through the program, the inmates create and implement their own curriculum for ecologically sustainable practices, taking on the roles of trainers and leaders.
They have also taken what they’ve learned to lobby prison officials to implement sustainability practices within San Quentin itself. Sevin and Thomas hope that by the end of the program, inmates will have learned both the technical skills and interpersonal skills to move into green jobs upon their release, bettering their world—both present and future.

Sevin, a social and environmental activist who has a master’s degree in experiential education, had already been volunteering at San Quentin in the peer education program, and she and the inmates were looking for something interesting to do next. “It coincided with one of the men and I having a brainstorm of bringing Van Jones in, before he went to the White House to be Obama’s green jobs director,” says Sevin. After Jones spoke to about 70 inmates about environmental work, the men got fired up.

“The core group of six or seven peer educators said they wanted to learn about the green economy and the technology we need to succeed,” she says. “More than anything, they just really identified with the humanity of the program. They realized the plight of the planet was similar to what they go through inside.”

Sevin met Thomas, who was employed by Global Exchange at the time, at the San Francisco Bioneers conference for social and environmental awareness, after observing author Paul Hawken speak on the importance of marrying the two movements of social justice and environmentalism.

“Several members of my family are incarcerated,” says Thomas. “And I never understood what my role should be in helping—whether I should go to law school, or move home and start a support organization. But none of that felt right. Then I met Angela and she said she was working inside San Quentin, and I said, ‘Yes, this is it.’”

Green Life gives inmates a chance to also explore their passions, whether on a local or global level. One project involved creating a video of inmates reading impassioned letters to the prime minister of Malaysia demanding an end to plans to construct a coal-fired plant in Sabah in Borneo. “I hope that you will look at the recent oil platform devastation of the Gulf Coast of America,” one inmate read aloud. He signed it: “A concerned citizen of the USA, and the world.”

Inmates in the program range in age from their mid-20s into their 60s, explains Sevin. Some are men who have traveled the world; others barely completed the sixth grade. For someone to be able to participate in a program like this, he has to earn it through good behavior.

Members of the prison parole board attributed their decision to parole one inmate in part to his participation in the Green Life class, Sevin says. “He’ll go straight to Mexico when released—he wants to work on the land of his family.”

The program’s graduation ceremony in November saw the matriculation of 18 students and nine group facilitators. The students’ achievement was celebrated with wood flute music, certificates, and speeches—as well as by two dozen environmentalists, who attended as guests.

Despite the joys, Thomas and Sevin acknowledge there are also challenges. They have arrived at the prison only to be turned away. “We have been stopped in our tracks by outbreaks of chicken pox and swine flu, and other logistical issues that have made it complicated at times,” says Sevin. The codirectors have more goals for this pilot project, though, including a permaculture lab. Yet Sevin, a volunteer, and Thomas, supported by a Green For All fellowship, say that significant funding has eluded them.

Still, they persevere. “This work breaks me to my core,” says Thomas, “but it’s also the most inspiring thing I’ve ever participated in. Because these men are doing it. They are not letting life or circumstance defeat them. And that keeps me focused.”

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