This story is about the curative properties of nature and her ability to overcome the evils and afflictions of mankind. This is a story of healing, transformation, and freedom ignited by nature. This is the story of change fueled by nature and led by the Insight Garden Program, changing society one life at a time, beginning with my own!
My given name is Lashun, although I am most commonly known as Jamala, which means proud in Swahili.
I am formerly incarcerated, having served 31 years in state prison, 15 of those years served in Pelican Bay’s security housing unit (solitary confinement). I entered prison as an 18-year-old boy. I left prison as a 49-year-old man who had served nearly every day of my adult life in a cage (prison).
Nearly every day of my childhood and as an adult has been spent surrounded by and involved in crime, drugs, gangs, and violence.
The foundation for my criminal lifestyle was formed as a child, cemented as a teenager, and built upon as I entered prison. When I entered prison there was no such thing as “rehabilitation”, prison was more akin to “criminal college”. I went to prison and became a better criminal. I became more disciplined, determined, and committed to rising within the criminal ranks.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was searching for the things I did not have as a child-like love, acceptance, family, and approval. At 15 years old, I became a drug addict, which fueled the crime spree that would see me sentenced to 99 years to life! Yes, I was sentenced to live, grow old and die on the floor of a concrete cage. During this time (1990), California prisons did not parole lifers. Which meant lifers lived with the reality that we would die in prison. Can you imagine the helplessness and hopelessness we lived with? My actions reflected this reality, how could it not, in my mind, I had nothing to lose! I saw no value in my life, which made it impossible for me to value the lives of others. I truly became entrenched in prison politics and lost in the forest of my hopelessness. As a result of my criminal activities and suspected membership in a prison gang, I was removed from the general population and placed in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay State Union (PBSU) Security Housing Units (SHU). I was given an “Indeterminate SHU” term, which meant that I would spend the rest of my life in solitary confinement.
I remained in solitary confinement for 15 years (2000-2015). Can you imagine a space designed in the depths of the darkest hearts and minds of mankind? PBSP/SHU was designed to remove as many external stimuli as possible from the men housed there. There are no windows in the cells, there is no sunlight, grass, dirt, soil, or trees. We were intentionally separated from nature, we were deprived of the healing effects of sunshine. The irony is that PBSP is built in the middle of the Redwood National Forest, which is some of the most beautiful landscapes on the planet, while inside the walls of the SHU compound there is nothing but steel and concrete. For 15 years, I lived in this concrete tomb.
In June of 2013, the incarcerated citizens housed in solitary confinement planned and executed a massive hunger strike that quickly spread throughout the California prison system. We brought the prison system to its knees. This was the first time in all of my decades behind the walls that I witnessed the various races, gangs, and groups put aside decades of hate, violence, and mistrust to pursue a common goal, and it worked!! This would set the precedent for the “End of Hostilities” agreement that remains in effect to this day. I am proud to say that I was a part of this revolutionary movement.
How Nature Healed My Wounds
In 2015 I was released from solitary confinement. I was sent to California State Prison, Los Angeles County (CSP-LAC). I had been removed from external stimuli for so long, I was completely overwhelmed. In those first few weeks, I can recall sitting in the back of my cell with the lights out, overwhelmed by sound and movement. My once outstanding ability to connect with other human beings was gone! In solitary, social skills are unnecessary as social interaction is intentionally minimal. As the old saying goes “If you don’t use it, you will lose it”, and I did !! I could no longer relate to or even tolerate the presence of other human beings. And then it happened.
One day while standing in the dayroom (alone), I saw a signup list on the bulletin board. It was for a class called Insight Garden Program (IGP). After spending 15 years in an artificial environment surrounded by metal and concrete, I wanted nothing more than to touch soil or plant something. I had no idea what IGP was, I simply wanted to touch and feel. Little did I know this was the first step toward my “awakening”!
My reintroduction to nature would eventually teach me to feel again. That 2-hour class every Friday became my “safe space”. Greenery and good soil brought calm to the chaos that is prison. I thrived in this setting. Our group consisted of approximately 15 people. Slowly, I began to unwind and decompress as we sat in a small room discussing gardening, landscaping, nature, and life. We even had a small greenhouse, in desperate need of repair, but it was ours.
The fruit of my reintroduction to nature would form the foundation of my ability to address other core issues in my life like addiction, anger, and gangs. Without my reconnection to nature, I would never have been able to conquer those particular demons. This is at the core of the peace and tranquility that I live with today.
I am sometimes amazed when I think back to the day I signed up for IGP thinking it was simply gardening. It turned out to be my salvation. IGP used nature to assemble a group of men who taught me to think introspectively and gave me the courage and security to speak my truth. Nature in its purest form is curative. IGP reintroduced me to nature and that reintroduction fueled my transformation as a human being. There was a time in my life when many considered me cold, callous, apathetic, and violent. They would not be wrong!
As a direct result of IGP’s reintroduction and my reawakening, my life has truly come full circle.
Today, after 31 years of incarceration, I am a free man, I am finishing up my BA in Sociology and I am blessed to have the love and support of family and friends. I work for IGP as a Reentry Coordinator. What began as a job has become my calling. IGP has given me the opportunity to help others reenter society as IGP once helped me.
Who would have ever thought that a signature, a reintroduction, a reawakening, and ultimately my transformation would lead to freedom and prosperity? I help people! I am healed!!
Jamala Taylor is formerly incarcerated, having served 31 years overall and 15 years in solitary confinement as a lifer. Jamala was released in 2020. Today, he’s finishing up his BA in Sociology, working as a reentry coordinator at Insight Garden Program, and thriving in freedom.