Tim’s powerful poem, Citizen: In Shades of Antebellum Blue, is included in the Revolutionary Poets Brigade anthology, Building Socialism. We were able to record Tim reading the poem when he called recently from San Quentin, and we are happy to share the audio of Tim reading the poem below. It’s always nice to hear Tim’s voice in thee long months without visitation at the prison. The book is available here.
This is the first letter since mid-July, due to Tim’s illness with Covid-19. The phone calls have been sporadic calls as well. For a while the officials at San Quentin did not let anyone make calls, supposedly to help stop the spread of the virus. And, with staff also sick from the virus, there were also weeks when the phone was not moved along the tier with any regularity.
The good news is that Tim is feeling better, but he is definitely struggling. Read the full letter below.
We have not gotten a letter recently from Tim. With a brief telephone call last week, we know he is slowly recovering from the coronavirus in his small cell in San Quentin. Hopefully we will receive a new letter and update to share with you soon.
We did want to share this image of Solitary Garden, the participatory public art project at UC Santa Cruz. The picture of the sculpture similar to the one that Tim spends upwards of 24 hrs a day, and the garden that is being grown on his behalf was taken in the hours before the university was evacuated on August 20 for the CZU wildfires.
The photograph is a poignant reminder of the relationship between California wildfires, firefighters, mass incarceration, and prison labor. Repeatedly, the governor and other officials have talked about the ‘lack of resources’ available to combat the fires sweeping across the state. By “lack of resources,” they are speaking about California’s dependency on the labor of incarcerated firefighters. These firefighters are a limited “resource” because of how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted prisons.
Looking at the 6’x 9’ sculpture of a solitary confinement cell sitting in the smoke of the fires is also to see an urgent question emerge. When prisoners are called state resources, what are the connections between mass incarceration, our overflowing prisons, and the state’s need for labor of this sort?
It was just announced that prisoners will no longer have access to phones in San Quentin. According to the Warden, this is to try to control the spread of the Covid-19. With more than 50% of the people locked up in San Quentin already testing positive, and many more displaying symptoms, this seems both cruel and too little, too late. Tim and everyone on death row and in solitary confinement have already been in their cells for 24-hours a day for weeks, sick and utterly isolated. And now, they won’t even be able to call loved ones for the foreseeable future.
While this is bleak, we just got a letter from Tim reporting that despite the horrendous conditions, Solitary Garden has brought some joy to his small cell. Someone recently visited UC Santa Cruz with their family and stumbled across the sculpture of his solitary cell and the garden. They described reading Tim’s letters and sitting in “his cell”, overlooking the Bay, and thinking about Tim. They write about how the project encapsulates the “torture” of U.S. prisons and called Solitary Garden “a call to action.” Tim said that the letter made his spirits rise, just to know that he is not utterly alone, and that people do see his plight. With letters being his only access now to the world outside of his cell, we hope more people will write Tim.
Tim called this afternoon with updates from San Quentin’s East Block, where he and all the prisoners sentenced to death penalties are held. At least 1/3 of the people in San Quentin now having tested positive for Covid-19—which Tim thinks is pretty much everyone who has actually been tested. Tim says that it feels “apocalyptic” on the East Block. Alarms are going off all the time too, with shouts of “man down”. Tim said he watched one guy get walked out of his cell by a guard. The guy was so ill the guard was pretty much dragging/ carrying him. Tim said the guy was brought back to his cell the same night.
Tim’s been coughing for two weeks, and he says his lungs feel like they are coated with something. He said everyone has the same cough, with the hacking heard echoing through the tiers 24 hours a day. He finally was tested for the virus yesterday, after having made the request for 10 straight days. The results will be back in about 5 days.
It was hardest to listen to Tim talk about the guy who died two days ago in his cell. This is the second reported death from the pandemic in SQ, and both deaths have been on death row. Tim said he thinks this is one of the reasons the governor and others aren’t doing anything about the catastrophe. Tim said bluntly that he expects most people in the U.S. could care less if people already sentenced to death die from a virus. While Tim’s innocence, and his struggles to get his case overturned are always in the background, Tim said, regardless of innocence or guilt, he wonders if this is what people imagine to be justice in the United States. Does justice means people sick and dying in cages?
I could only tell him that not everyone thinks that is justice—
Tim called yesterday with the news that he is coughing, has a sore throat, and body aches—and everyone else in the adjacent cells is in the same or worse condition. There is no more space to quarantine the people who are sick in the “Hole,” so any attempts to stop the spread of the virus seem to have ended.
Despite not feeling well, however, Tim did not call to talk about the virus or his own ill health. Instead, he wanted to talk about the uprisings and calls for abolition and justice that are resonating around the country— which brought protestors to gather at the gates of San Quentin even as we spoke by phone. In the over 20 years he has been incarcerated, wrongly convicted of a crime which he did not commit, Tim said, he’s never heard so many people talking about abolition. And yet, according to Tim, abolition is the logical conclusion to the systemic racism of the criminal justice system. “With racism impacting all aspects of not only policing but also how the courts mete out their judgments and sentences,” Tim asked, “how could justice be found within the same systems constructed around the discrimination of Black people, people of color, indigenous people, and the poor?…Abolition would give us a blank state, and should be part of the reparations that are past due in the United States.”
The phone call with Tim ended abruptly, as always, disconnected when the time was up, before we could talk more about his health or express hopes for his wellbeing. However, as Tim well knows, when we talk about abolition, we are talking about his health and wellbeing—and the undoing of the rampant sickness at the heart of the nation.
Read Tim’s new essay, 8 Minutes 46 Seconds. As he writes in this poignant piece about the murder of George Floyd and the carceral continuum,
“At the end of the day, every African American, from every walk of life has felt that 8 minutes and 46 seconds grip around their neck in some way, shape, or form.”
“What we have here is the tale of two knees. Kaepernick used his to make Black Lives Matter. Officer Chauvin used his to make Black lives nonexistent.”
Watch the video tour made by UC Santa Cruz students of Tim’s Solitary Garden.