Imagining a Landscape Without Prisons

Tim Young and Jackie Sumell bring Solitary Garden Project to Santa Cruz

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Eyes closed, legs crossed, I sit in Tim Young’s garden listening to the sounds of birds, feeling the watery rays of a winter sun on my cheeks. I can hear bamboo rustling beside me and smell the mulch beneath me. If I opened my eyes, I would see rolling pastures fading into a liquid horizon, tree branches shivering in the dry air, tiny specks that I would recognize as buildings far away in downtown Santa Cruz.

Eighty-nine miles away, Young sits in solitude in his 4.5 foot by 10 foot cell at San Quentin State Prison. 2020 marks Young’s 14th year on death row.

“Prison is the equivalent of modern day slavery,” Young wrote in a letter. “If you believe that slavery was wrong, then you must begin to take a closer look at the American prison system. Are they both not worthy of abolishing?”

The 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, but one consequential loophole paved the way for today’s prison industrial complex. The amendment abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. It’s this shocking parallel that sparked a new wave of abolitionism in the U.S. 

This country’s legacy of slavery is largely uninterrupted. The prisons of today serve a similar purpose to the plantations of the past. The abolition movement seeks to eradicate these modalities of oppression, rejecting calls for reform that assume the possibility of just incarceration.

“Before this project I didn’t really understand the difference between prison abolition and prison reform, because I would assume prison reform was another way to get to prison abolition,” said Jocelyn Lopez-Anleu, a curatorial intern for the Institute of the Arts and Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. “[…] There shouldn’t even be a system of punishment when the things that people are getting punished for are things that the system has created in the first place.”

In November 2019, artist and activist Jackie Sumell constructed Young’s garden at UCSC. The small plot of soil overlooking Monterey Bay is part of her ongoing Solitary Gardens Project, a collection of pieces advocating for prison abolition and dedicated to imagining a landscape without incarceration. 

This line of inquiry began in 2001 when Sumell made the acquaintance of Herman Wallace, a member of the Black Panthers and political prisoner who spent four decades in solitary.

Through thousands of letters, Sumell and Wallace designed “Herman’s House,” the plans for an oasis, a dream home outside the confines of prison. Eventually this developed into Sumell’s “The House That Herman Built,” an ongoing series in which Sumell exhibited a replica of Wallace’s cell alongside a model of his dream home.

“Each time I built that cell it became more clear to me that solitary confinement was arguably the most condensed form of torture and punishment in the colonized United States,” Sumell said at a Nov. 5, 2019 Traction Talk at UCSC. “And arguably, for me at least, it becomes the most important target for abolition.”

Opponents of the U.S. carceral state often describe solitary confinement as cruel and unusual punishment, but Sumell reminded her audience that solitary confinement, while cruel, is not unusual. The U.S. houses about 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the global prison population. Up to 7 million human beings are in correctional facilities, or on parole or probation in the U.S. And 80,000 to 100,000 of those individuals are confined to solitary.

“I was born in Hanford, California,” Young wrote. “[…] What I remember vividly is the unity, it was a small, close knit community, but it was big on unity. Having come from a place of love and unity, it was quite a culture shock to get to prison, and find out that prison is a place of politics, hate, petty jealousies and division.”

Young was arrested in 1999 and sentenced to death row in 2006. Prisoners in solitary at San Quentin spend most of every day confined to their cells. Young calls death row a place of stagnation and despair. The cell could very well be one’s coffin, Young said, but he tries to convert it into a college.

“Punitive justice derives from slavery – punitive justice has always been reserved for people of color, and I’m sure punitive justice is all America has ever known,” Young wrote. “The way to challenge the narratives that try to normalize punishment, racism, sexism, etc. is to simply rebuke them!”

Before 2006, Young dreamed of becoming a rap artist and producer. During his youth he rapped off the top of his head about social justice. Today, Young continues his lyrical exploration of justice through poetry, which he publishes on his website timothyjamesyoung.com

Delving into prose, he recently wrote an article exploring the nuances of celebrity advocacy. For Young, Kim Kardashian and Colin Kaepernick exemplify a brand of activism many are too quick to dismiss. Kardashian and Kaepernick have chosen to use their platforms in revolutionary ways, and for that, they deserve credit, Young said.

“The struggle is embedded in my DNA,” Young said. “And whether I like it or not, I will always speak truth to power, and my writings will always touch on social justice issues.”

Tim Young’s Garden overlooks the Monterey Bay. Photo by Lluvia Moreno.

Concrete and steel bars comprise the landscape of San Quentin, and yet in Santa Cruz, atop a hill between the arts buildings, Young’s garden grows. Lopez-Anleu is tasked with caring for Young’s plants, among which are sugar cane, roses, leafy greens, daisies and daffodils. 

“I think one of the most beautiful [descriptions] was the sugar cane. He has a lot of time to read so he started reading a lot about the history of slavery and one of the things he learned was that in order for slaves to have even the slightest bit of privacy was to go into the sugar cane fields. […] He really likes the thought of putting them into the garden because, even though it’s a public setting, [he] still wanted to have the idea of privacy. Because he has no type of privacy in prison and he hasn’t for years.”

In Young’s garden, the past is honored and the future reimagined. Brussel sprouts and lima beans represent growth and evolution — Young hated them as a kid, but says today, he digs them. 

Young recalls how enslaved people learned to make something from nothing out of the leafy greens that white people considered waste. He said he imagines tasting kale and swiss chard for the first time. Though their flavors are unfamiliar, his body craves them. 

Below the surface, seeds of hope are sprouting, and community is cultivated amidst the sugar cane fronds. As passersby pause to hold onto a moment in the garden they share Young’s vision and peace.

“Instead of just planting what the dimensions [of a cell] would be on campus, you can interact with it. There’s growth coming out of this,” Lopez-Anleu said. “It’s not stagnant art, it’s a give and take.”

Resisting stagnation means questioning the status quo. The Solitary Garden Project resists a culture of punishment, inviting us to imagine what it would mean to extend compassion instead.

Injustice has permeated the terrain of the U.S. throughout its checkered past. When the history of the prison industrial complex is uprooted, its rotten core unearthed, the logic of abolition becomes clear. 

“In order to imagine a landscape without prisons, one must first be able to imagine a landscape without racism, injustice and inequality,” Young said. “Do you, the reader, think that Americans are capable of purging these things from their existence?”