“Agents for Change”: Living The Green Life at San Quentin State Prison
An excerpt from Drew Dellinger’s “hieroglyphic stairway”
my great great grandchildren
ask me in dreams
what did you do while the planet was plundered?
what did you do when the earth was unraveling?
surely you did something
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
did you fill the streets with protest
when democracy was stolen?
what did you do
“How can we work to win the tireless fight against climate change?” “How do we push down the feelings of overwhelming urgency to save the planet?” “How can we be catalysts for change?”
These are the questions that arose after reading Dellinger’s poem during one of the Green Life’s weekly lessons within the guarded walls of San Quentin State Prison. Opened in 1852, the oldest Californian prison houses almost four-thousand men and is located twenty miles north of San Francisco. I was recently granted the opportunity to become involved with The Green Life program, San Quentin’s environmental literacy program for the prison’s inmates. Started by Angela Sevin in 2009, The Green Life is one of the few environmental education programs that exists within a United States prison.
Sevin, who still serves as The Green Life’s director, is nothing but welcoming when I finally meet her in person after weeks of communications. Passionate about both the environment and experiential education, The Green Life director holds weekly classes for inmates in a modular classroom tucked away behind the prison’s baseball field and basketball courts. The twenty-two inmates in the current Green Life cycle attend these classes voluntarily, but can use the certificates they receive at the end of their cycle as an incentive to reach parole sooner.
The types of discussions The Green Life lead could very much take place in Mulford or Dwinelle; chairs are positioned in a circle and turned inwards, with blank posters labeled with questions of what and who is impacted by global climate change. At the start of the class, a paper of group agreements is passed around with guidelines such as keeping swearing to a minimum and having empathy for diverse opinions. One by one, the men go around in a circle and share their thoughts on the previous week’s homework assignment, watching The 11th Hour.
This conversation is facilitated by inmate Juan Haines,
an award winning journalist for the San Quentin News, which is the only inmate-produced newspaper in California and one of the very few that exist worldwide. Haines has been in prison since 1996 and is serving a life sentence in San Quentin. His ability to cheerfully foster a strong community between these twenty-two men is admirable. For those new to the class and without either of the textbooks, he asks them to “buddy up and find a friend”. He is an encouraging facilitator, even helping those less-outspoken contribute to the conversation surrounding of global climate change. He attempts to serve as a beacon of hope to some of the inmates when environmental injustices such as slum housing in India and the toxic pollution of water are discussed.
The Green Life uses Paul Hawken’s Sustainable World Sourcebook and Drawdown as textbooks, and the enormity of the issues surrounding climate change begin to settle in with this new cycle of students. During this two-hour lesson, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Green New Deal are discussed for a moment, climate refugees and immigration the next.
One inmate, who had only been to a Green Life meeting once before, divulged his feelings of frustration, his fear, and his uneasiness of where to even begin in terms of combatting climate change. He speaks of a statistic mentioned in one of their readings that made him analyze his own life behind bars.
“If you have food in a refrigerator, clothes in your closet, a bed to sleep in, and a roof over your head, you are better off, materially, than 75% of people on this planet.”
After learning about the damaging effects of consumerism and the ways oil industries exploit the earth, he confessed to the class he was possibly considering turning his back on The Green Life. He found the content disheartening and overwhelming. This sentiment is all too familiar to me —many of these men are scared for the future of our planet; they are unsure of how they are able to make a difference.
Haines uses this moment of pause to his advantage and reminds the class that pockets of hope exist, and that it is our duty to find them. One inmate, who was raised in Kenya, shares with his fellow inmates his excitement to go back to his home country to see his mother again and learn more about the colorful dhows made from recycled plastic in person, thirty-foot long boats used by fishermen throughout the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. Other members of the Green Life have eliminated meat from their meals within San Quentin. Still, some have been cutting back on water usage during showers and educating those showering nearby water’s value, equating it to gold. Another member tells the group of the amount of trash he picks up each day during his daily walks near the baseball field.
These conversations lead to a collective agreement within the group that even if these lessons are shared with just another cellmate, or just another inmate, or even just with one of their outside visitors, the information could spread and potentially reach those with the political power, shifting their focus from personal gain to the needs of the people.
Resilience is a word that echoes in my head when I think about this program. The Green Life serves as a catalyst for change and its lessons show the strength of community even in spaces of disenfranchisement. I was amazed by the actions the inmates take to work against climate change and the strength of their voices, both as a group and as one. As a closer for the week’s readings at the Green Life’s meeting, the words of author John Robbins resonated with the mentality and drive of the students in the classroom, “If we can open to that grief, that pain, there’s a possibility of embracing that pain and that grief in a way that it becomes a strength, a power to respond.”