Planting Justice’s Prison Abolition Work Starts at the Root

Planting Justice's reentry coordinator Rasheed Lockheart and media director Ashley Yates (left to right) checking out strawberries at the organization's nursery, which gives formerly incarcerated people green jobs with the ultimate goal of prison abolition. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

R

olling River Nursery is an oasis of tranquility in deep East Oakland, with over 1,100 varieties of fragrant herbs, vibrant flowers, fruit-bearing trees, berry bushes and vegetable beds that stretch on for two acres. As the staff here nurtures the plants, they nurture themselves too—not long ago, many of them were confined to cells in California’s notoriously overcrowded prison system.

Rasheed Lockheart, reentry coordinator at Planting Justice, the nonprofit that runs the nursery, was released only a few months ago after serving 18 years in San Quentin State Prison for an armed robbery. A few short months after he left the facility, a botched prison transfer sparked a disastrous COVID-19 outbreak in San Quentin. Now, over 1,200 inmates have been infected and 12 have died.

Lockheart was fortunate to be home by the time COVID-19 hit San Quentin, but he says he has survivor’s guilt. A couple of the guys he knows are recovering from the illness in cramped, unsanitary conditions, with inadequate medical care. The EMTs he worked with when he was a firefighter there are getting triple the amount of emergency calls a day. And a friend wrote him a letter to say goodbye in case he didn’t survive the outbreak.

“I would have to imagine it’s like death row. You know an execution’s coming, you’re just not sure when. And that’s tragic,” says Lockheart, looking down and taking a long pause to compose himself.

“It breaks my heart to think of some of the good men I left behind because I—it’s like they’re being victimized, you know. We all deserve a second chance. Some of us were on our third or fourth. But no one deserves what’s happening inside of San Quentin.”

Sponsored

Lockheart is doing everything he can to advocate for those on the inside, and his work at Planting Justice is part of that mission. He’s become an unofficial media spokesperson, doing interviews with KQED, PRX’s Snap Judgment podcast, Oaklandside and others, using his firsthand experience and ongoing communication with those inside to shed light on the growing crisis inside California’s prison walls.

The same thoughts keep running through his mind. “That guy sitting in his cell wondering if he’s going to outlive his sentence, all the amends he made or wants to make—will he get to see that through? Will he get to be like me and the numerous other people who are formerly incarcerated and are doing great things in the community right now? I think about them and that my voice has to be in advocacy for them.”

Rasheed Lockheart and Ashley Yates (left to right) of Planting Justice. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

B

eyond the urgency of the San Quentin COVID outbreak, Lockheart’s day-to-day work at Planting Justice is about the longterm project of prison abolition, which means working with people to build healthier communities. The definition of that is manifold. It means helping formerly incarcerated people get on their feet through green jobs at Planting Justice, awakening them to a new sense of purpose by building raised flower beds for clients and tending to plants at the organization’s nursery and farm. It means teaching about sustainability and food justice in public school classrooms, juvenile detention centers, jails and prisons. It means helping people who live in food deserts start urban gardens. It means handing out free kale smoothies at Castlemont High School during a time when many are going hungry because of the pandemic-induced recession.

“If we go in and teach these people how to grow their own food and how to be sustainable—the Black Panther Party got it right,” Lockheart says. “With no food and no options, [people are] gonna go get it how they can. And unfortunately, that’s crime. And crime equals prison. We wanna abolish the prisons, we wanna abolish all these systems, but we first have to plant the seeds of love, trust and sustainability.”

Lockheart and his fellow reentry coordinator Diane Williams sow those seeds by helping their colleagues get acclimated to life outside of prison, sometimes in ways people who’ve never been incarcerated may take for granted. Planting Justice gives “former residents,” as formerly incarcerated people are called there, clothing and food stipends; Lockheart and Williams help them navigate bureaucratic tasks such as reinstating a drivers license after a DUI. They offer emotional support too. Meditation circles are as much a part of the workday as pulling weeds and watering strawberries and squashes.

“Really it’s believing in them and whatever they bring to the table that’s positive, encourage that,” says Williams, who brings 40 years of social work and substance-abuse counseling experience to Planting Justice. “So much stuff that happened to us as a little kids, we keep recycling it as adults until we process it and move on. So we’re just helping each other move on here.”

P

lanting Justice takes a big-picture view of how access to healthy and environmentally conscious practices can help address some of the wounds of systemic racism and mass incarceration. Another one of the organization’s projects zooms out even further, addressing the ways the unjust systems that marginalize Black and Indigenous communities began with colonialism.

The organization collaborated with the Sogorea Te Land Trust to give two acres of land back to people of the Ohlone community of Northern California. The Ohlone people aren’t a federally recognized tribe, nor do they have a land base. Now, two acres of the Rolling River Nursery are an Ohlone cultural heritage site and a space for ceremony.

Rolling River Nursery in East Oakland. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Williams, who is part of the Native American community and helped organize the partnership, says that Ohlone ideas of land as sacred inform Planting Justice’s work. “It’s a love,” she says. “You can’t tell people, ‘You’ve got to love this land because it’s supporting you.’ No. It’s something you have to develop for people who’ve been separated from the land.”

“Understanding the history of colonization is the deeper work,” echoes Planting Justice media director Ashley Yates. “When you control the land, you control the people, you control the resources. And when we’re talking about BIPOC communities, you understand there’s also a disconnect that’s intentional because our spirituality and our communities are vested in the earth. We are an earth-reverent people. So when you disconnect people from that, you disconnect people from their power.”

Yates moved to Oakland and began working with Planting Justice after leaving her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri. She was a frontline activist when the first major Black Lives Matter protests erupted after police officer Darren Wilson killed Ferguson teenager Mike Brown. She feared for her safety after the protests, recalling militarized police tanks parked outside her house. Oakland drew her because of its history of Black organizing, and she’s found a calling within Planting Justice’s environmental form of civil rights activism.

“A lot of the time you have to get into the soil, into the root,” she says.

Mass incarceration, food insecurity, land sovereignty—the interlocking issues Planting Justice tries to address with a few acres of soil, some plants and a small team of a few dozen staff members are overwhelming in scope. But the day-to-day ritual of working the land provides solace, too, and some hope that a more just future will grow from each seed planted.

Sponsored

“That’s what nature does, it reminds us of how free things are,” Lockheart says. “I don’t think you realize how free you are until you’re amongst things that are actually free.”