By Timothy James Young
I have recently been asked by journalists and others about my experiences of collaborating with the award-winning artist jackie sumell and UC Santa Cruz on the Solitary Garden project. People have also inquired about my health and asked if I would be willing to shed some light on the state of the Covid-19 pandemic at San Quentin State Prison. After thinking about it long and hard, I decided that these repeated questions reveal a story—a story that is worthy of sharing.
This realization also comes out of my experience of collaborating with jackie sumell and UC Santa Cruz, an opportunity that has been magical. When jackie selected me out of the 2.3 million prisoners there are in the United States to be the Solitary Gardener at UC Santa Cruz—I knew right then and there that I had hit the lottery! I still feel that way, and I always credit her with having celestial judgment because pairing me with UC Santa Cruz has been a match made in heaven.
When I first started working with jackie and the students on the garden, which sits overlooking the ocean on the UC Santa Cruz campus, I was excited to have the opportunity to imagine being able to touch the soil and grow food, plants, flowers… I think I would be happy to even grow weeds. I have been in a cell for 22 years, and I have not held soil in my hands for all those years. I’m in San Quentin, right next to San Francisco Bay, but I haven’t seen the ocean in all that time either. I felt like jackie had offered me a window out of my cell. I even designed the garden to have a veranda so I could better dream about having the view. And, it was amazing to work with students and volunteers to make my ideas become real.
What I came to realize was I was also being offered a platform. The mission of the Solitary Garden project is to get people to imagine a landscape without prisons. What I’ve learned is for people to want to abolish prisons, first they have to understand them and what it’s like to be inside. And, jackie has given me an opportunity to supply this information. I have a platform that allows my voice to be heard. The window jackie gave me works both ways—through letters, phone calls and camaraderie with staff, students, supporters, and volunteers, people are also able to see me. They are able to see my attempts to prove my innocence and the corruption that led to my conviction, as well as the conditions in San Quentin. Through Solitary Garden, I am able to transcend the concrete bounds of my four and a half by ten-foot prison cell and reach levels of visibility that the downtrodden can only pray for.
This has been especially important during the pandemic. On a personal level, the connections and the bonds that I have made through the Solitary Garden project have been invaluable. And the reason that I am still healthy enough to render these words is because of the love and support I received during the heart of the pandemic. As people may or may not know, I contracted the virus back in June of 2020. I had a very rough time of it but my saving grace came in the form of people who had come to know me through the project. It was my visibility that brought them in, but in return, it was their love, care and support that kept me afloat.
My experiences that I have shared through my Solitary Garden letters, which then are published online, have also given people a look at the inhumane workings of our nation’s prisons. I never received treatment for the virus, along with most of the other prisoners at San Quentin (many of us have been sick as a result of tight quarters, overcrowding, lack of ventilation, etc.) and I still suffer from lingering symptoms. And although I have incessantly complained about brain fog, fatigue, and “long hauler” symptoms, my complaints have fallen on deaf ears. I also suffer from sleep disorders. These sleep disorders were exacerbated after having contracted the coronavirus. Despite having sought medical help and requesting to be seen by a sleep disorder specialist to determine diagnosis and treatment, to date, the doctors at San Quentin State Prison refuse to refer me to a sleep specialist. Again, I am denied any semblance of adequate medical care.
My Covid-19 story is not an anomaly; I’m sure there are a thousand other horror stories just like it. But just as prison officials have hid the true number of positive Covid-19 cases and the true number of outbreaks, so too will they hide the number of long haulers. Case and point: I recently received a letter from my attorney (in relation to a mandatory Inmate Transfer Program) which stated that San Quentin is claiming herd immunity and alleging that they haven’t had a positive test result in the prison since August of 2020. However, over 30 prisoners in my unit were in quarantine at the time that I received the letter. Hypocrisy? Yes! But it speaks to how low the prison industrial complex will go in order to sweep pandemic statistics under the rug.
In spite of the pandemic, in spite of the outbreak at San Quentin State Prison, and in spite of the shelter-in-place-orders and national lockdown, I marvel at how much we’ve accomplished through Solitary Garden. Perhaps we could’ve made more strides had we not encountered so many roadblocks and impediments, but when I hear from people who have been impacted by the garden, the concepts behind it, or my writings—it lets me know that our mission to bring about abolition is pandemic proof.