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Mail Call! By Tim Young

Here in prison, amid condemned men, the weather of life is often inclement. The winds of misery blow relentlessly, and for me, one of the only things that I have to look forward to throughout the week is the announcement of “mail call!”

The anticipation is real! From Monday through Friday I find myself waiting on the 2:00 PM shift change! That is when the 2nd watch goes home, and the 3rd watch officers begin their eight-hour shift. When the 3rd watch officers enter the unit to begin their shift, they usually stop at the front desk area where the mail for each tier has been sorted out and placed in individual USPS carrying containers. The officers will then pick up the mail for their assigned tier and report for duty.

On a good day, the officer will have the mail passed out by 4 o’clock (which is the prison’s institutional count time.) If not, the mail is often not passed out until after chow time. For me, the agony of waiting for the officer to walk down the tier with the mail cart is tortuous. I always find myself waiting with bated breath!

Who am I? And why does mail matter so much to me? My name is Timothy James Young. I am an innocent man on San Quentin’s Death Row, convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. My mode of thinking is that if Black lives are to matter…If abolition is to matter…If my life is to matter….Then mail must matter! Support must matter!

It’s not just that every time I get a letter, I can sometimes forget that I spend the bulk of my existence (sometimes 24 hours a day) alone in a cell so small I cannot stretch out my arms. It’s not just that a letter breaks up the monotony of my days spent surrounded by concrete and bars. It’s not just that when I get a letter, I know that someone sees me as more than the identification number I have been given by the state. It’s also that I know every letter I get is a small triumph against a system that has tried to make me and the other 2.3 million people in U.S. prisons and jails invisible.

When it comes to politics and policing I often talk about the “carceral continuum,” and if you can recall the 8 minutes and 46 seconds of horror that George Floyd was subjected to, then you can probably imagine some of the horrors that take place in prison. I won’t paint any pictures here, I’ll just say that prisons are designed to dehumanize people and to tear down all lines of communication, care and support. So, when I get a letter, it makes a difference in my life, and my day is so much better. And, with every letter, I am also proud that others are joining me in the fight against the racist and oppressive structures that want to vanish me.

I am a freedom fighter. I fight for freedom, justice, and equality. I fight on behalf of all. I fight for those who won’t even fight at all. I do all of this from behind the walls…the walls of mass incarceration, racism, and oppression. Yes! I am trapped inside the belly of the beast! But, do not let the media, the prison industrial complex, or the powers that be deter you from reaching out, having an impact, and making a difference in my life. With your support I am able to effect change from the inside out! With your support, be it emotional, personal, monetary, or legal, I am able to spread my tattered wings and reach new heights!

The way I see it, letters lead to friendship. Friendship leads to solidarity. And solidarity leads to support. It may not always happen in that exact order, but the theory that I have developed is that “friendship is the pathway to freedom!”

Speaking of mail, this year one of my supporters had sent me a drawing of a rose for my birthday. Scrolled across the rose was the word “solidarity.” I used to liken myself to the “Rose That Grew From Concrete,” but after 20 plus years of incarceration, and after receiving the rose that was gifted to me, I now consider myself the “Rose That Grew From Solidarity!” I realize that solidarity not only strengthens me and allows me to grow, but that it also places me snugly inside of a community that cares! A community that believes that a better world is possible!

I consider myself a student of life, and every person that I am able to correspond with and build with is simply another opportunity for me to learn and grow. So I ask that you get off the sidelines of apathy and indifference, and that you pick up a paper a pen. I ask that you join my fight for freedom and abolition and that you allow your light to become a beacon of hope. And, in the words of the award winning artist jackie sumell, I ask that you “gift your eyes, your voice, and your freedom of movement to those who need them most.”

Make no mistake about it, your time, talent, and resources have the ability to move mountains…and when it comes to extracting a wrongfully convicted prisoner from the talons of the criminal justice system, sometimes it starts with just a simple letter, a letter of solidarity!

Consider this an SOS, a last request, a Hail Mary of sorts. And what I am asking is that you not only find me worthy of letters and kind acts of humanity, but that you’ll also consider becoming an active member of the “Free Tim Young” campaign. We are a budding movement, and our mission is in line with freedom, abolition, and eradicating the roots of systemic racism. Who’s in? Who will help bring my nightmare to and end?! I will await your letter at the next mail call!

Tim is a collaborator on EXPOSED, an online art project by Sharon Daniel tracking the impacts of Covid-19 on people in the U.S. carceral system

“The medical staff said this morning that people who were sick and were having symptoms—there was nothing they could do. They are just going to leave people in their cells…the only way people will be moved is if they are having respiratory problems to the point they can’t breathe” ~Tim Young, June 23, 2020

Since early June, Tim has collaborated with Sharon Daniel on EXPOSED, an ongoing online artwork documenting the ongoing spread of COVID-19 inside prisons, jails, and detention centers and bears witness to the overwhelming scope and scale of the devastation wrought by the pandemic on those held captive within the carceral system. EXPOSED features interviews and letters about Tim’s experiences, reports from other people who are incarcerated throughout the United States, and statistics and information being disseminated through news reports and social media.

View clips of Tim’s contributions below, and visit unjustlyexposed.com to explore the full project.

Visit unjustlyexposed.com

Sharon Daniel is a digital media artist who creates interactive documentary artworks addressing issues of social, racial and environmental injustice, with a particular focus on mass incarceration and the criminal justice system.

Tim has a poem in Revolutionary Poets Brigade’s new anthology!

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.

Timothy James Young, Citizen:In Shade of Antebellum Blue

Update: Tim’s preparing UCSC Solitary Garden for winter

When Tim called in late October, he said it is already getting cold in San Quentin. The concrete cells hold both the heat and the chill, and right now, Tim explained, he was already having to layer up to try to keep warm. This made him wonder about how the plants were doing at UC Santa Cruz Solitary Garden. After the election, and with the challenges and opportunities ahead for with the changing federal government, Tim said he wanted to think about how to prepare the garden for a spring replanting. After talking it through, we decided to take out some plants that weren’t doing so well and seed the bed with cover crop to replenish nutrients to the soil over the winter.

As Tim said, there is lots of work to do right now to heed Solitary Garden and jackie sumell’s call to “imagine a landscape without prisons.” He’s eager to continue prepare the ground in this long struggle for his own freedom and for abolition. He’s asked all of his comrades to focus right now on that vine which is climbing up the bars of Solitary Garden.

Learn more about Tim’s work as the UC Santa Cruz Solitary Gardener here.

We got a letter from Tim!

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.

Solitary Garden and the fires at UCSC

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?

Covid News from San Quentin

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.

What is justice in SQ?

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—

Abolition and Illness

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.

Friendship, Freedom, And Abolition

My name is Timothy James Young. I am an innocent man on San Quentin’s Death Row, and I am also the Solitary Gardener at UC, Santa Cruz. I have been hearing from a growing number of people who are curious about abolition. Many of them have read my essay entitled “Mail Call” and were struck with one sentence: “Friendship is the pathway to freedom.” The question that they most frequently ask me is how does friendship relate to abolition?

I answer that question by conjuring up the actions of the late, great, revolutionary John Brown. In my eyes, there is no better example of how friendship relates to abolition then his story.  

John Brown was a white man in the mid-19th century who was opposed to slavery. His countrymen, neighbors, and peers derided him as a “slave lover” and a “race traitor.”  They despised him. But John didn’t concern himself with the jabs, threats, and excoriations of white supremacy—for he knew that his stance was the right stance and that he was standing on the right side of history. He didn’t see Black people as “three-fifths human,” he saw them as whole beings. 

Brown was a man of faith and a man of humanity. He saw himself as a friend of enslaved people. And as a friend of enslaved people he felt that direct action was needed in the cause for abolishing slavery in the United States. I won’t go into a full account of history here, I’ll just say that Brown’s actions and the raid on Harpers Ferry are said to have been the spark that led to the Civil War. It is safe to say that the annals of African American history would read quite differently had there not been white people like John Brown who were willing to take direct action against the institution of slavery. 

We are now in the 21st Century, and we grapple with the fact that slavery never really died. It survived. It morphed into a pipeline. A pipeline that sucks up Black bodies and delivers them into the belly of the beast. This, my friends, is the essence of modern day slavery. And when people ask me how friendship relates to freedom and abolition? I think about the sacrifices that John Brown made so long ago, and I reply, “How does it not?”

When it comes to friendship and abolition, John Brown is just one example out of many. I could list a thousand other names and examples here but the end result is that there are a thousand different levels, degrees, and approaches to this thing that we call “friendship.” What I commonly tell people is that “friendship” is a bridge that they get to design for themselves—they get to decide which lanes they travel and which lanes they don’t.

I have a handful of friends who have crossed that proverbial bridge and who now wish to aid me in overturning my wrongful conviction. I get questions from them all the time asking me what they can do to help my cause? They often get frustrated because they feel like they’re not doing enough, or that the wheels of justice are turning too slow. As a bonafide victim of those “slow wheels,” the first thing I tell them is that the struggle for freedom and abolition is not a sprint—it’s a marathon! I then coach them to pick a lane, set a pace, and to focus on going the distance. Lastly, I remind them that their time, talents, and resources are viable commodities, and when extended in friendship—freedom and abolition become a mountain that can be moved.

So come. Be a friend. Take action. Move a mountain. Make a difference. Fight for freedom and abolition!

Ded: To the handful.