The concrete walls of San Quentin Prison in Marin County are a far cry from the Solitary Garden. The sculpture overlooks a panoramic view of Monterey Bay and is lined with soft green mugwort and delicately vivacious bergamot, sprouting with warm violet flower buds. These plants, which are packed with healing properties, were installed to represent the season of spring, focusing on rejuvenation and renewal.
The Solitary Garden is a public sculpture built on the UC Santa Cruz campus to imitate the structure of solitary confinement cells, displaying the living conditions that death row inmates like Timothy James Young endure. Blocks of metal across the garden recreate the structure of the prison cell itself — each represent a bed, the toilet and sink, a table, and a chair.
Created in collaboration with artist Jackie Sumell and the Institute of Arts and Sciences at UCSC, the structure itself attempts to add to the lagrer, on-going conversation about the abolition of the carceral system. Young designed the structure of the garden and the seasonal picks for the plants that are grown. His choice for the plants that are grown during spring are medicinal, highlighting the lack of proper healthcare in prisons — stinging nettle, mugwort, bergamot, lemon balm, and dudleya.
“I have thought long and hard about the new garden scheme and I have decided that it should be about healing and restoration,” Young wrote in a letter to Sumell and the Institute of Arts and Sciences. “I know that many of us are still traumatised by the pandemic and the Trump presidency so I have decided to focus on plants that have healing properties.”
Young has been in correspondence with Sumell and UCSC’s Institute of Arts and Sciences through letters since August 2019, but at the start of the pandemic, Young’s letters began to address the lack of proper medical assistance in prisons. As the year progressed, Young himself contracted COVID-19 and provided updates on the prison’s handling of the virus.
• Stinging Nettle: Stinging Nettle could be used to relieve rheumatism, paralysis, pain, inflation and other illnesses.
• Mugwort: Mugwort is be used to help joint pain, headaches, skin irritation, and promotes healthy sleep.
• Bergamot: Bergamot can help with relieving sore throat, muscle spasms, fungal infections, colds, nausea, fever, and slows bleeding.
• Lemon Balm: Lemon Balm is an herb that has mild sedative affect that can help with anxiety, sleep, and digestion.
• Dudleya: Is a succulent that supports birds, butterflies, and moths.
Young told Sumell and UCSC that roughly 28 prisoners had died at San Quentin in the past year due to COVID-19, and shared that the virus has had lasting effects for him.
“I still suffer from brain fog, fatigue, and long hauler symptoms but I carry on the best I can,” Young wrote late January. “It is merely impossible to receive adequate medical care here –– but I will spare you the horror stories that accompany that for the time being.”
Students, particularly artists, are encouraged to interact with the garden by submitting artwork such as drawings, poems, or any messages to Young for a zine, set to be created by the Institute of Arts and Science and published on May 10th. A physical copy will be made for Young and all the contributors, and will also be available digitally.
The garden is tended to by volunteers. Golnoush Pak, an undergraduate and Everett Program fellow, waters the garden as often as they can.
“I remember seeing the installation for the first time and feeling a lot of emotions, specifically anger. There was a lot of frustration and anger and thinking about how people don’t deserve to live in this space,” Pak said. “I tried to close my eyes and imagine myself in [Young’s] place. It was challenging. I would then open my eyes and I had the view of the ocean and hear people walking and biking by. That feeling overwhelms you.”
Rachel Nelson, the interim director of UCSC’s Institute of Arts and Sciences and a professor in the History of Art and Visual Culture department, has been working in collaboration with Sumell and Young on the garden.
Nelson is also co-curating Barring Freedom, a multi-sited exhibition that highlights the importance of abolition through events like Visualizing Abolition –– a series of online exhibitions and speaking events that discuss art and its commitment to aboliton.
“In many ways the garden is a metaphor for how social relationships could be reimagined outside of prisons. If we live in a system where we actually care for each other, tend to each other, and pay attention to our neighbours then prisons would no longer be necessary,” Nelson said. “In a way we have a responsibility to Young. In a way, we are tending to his garden.”