Rewilding Nature and Rehumanizing People
”To learn ecological restoration is not only to learn something of great beauty, and great healing properties, but it’s the most valuable thing you can do on the planet. I can’t think of anything that would be more valuable for people who are incarcerated. Perhaps prisons, from a social perspective, are the place we need to go to restore the human spirit—John D. Liu, Ecologist and Filmmaker
Imagine a society where the refuse we would normally discard into landfills and the human beings we would normally discard into prisons were instead transformed into essential resources. While not a new concept, it is a courageous one. To “rewild nature and rehumanize society” is the core purpose of the nonprofit Unconditional Freedom, and can be seen in the new feature documentary, “At Home and In The World.”
A Solution Rooted in The Soil:
Unconditional Freedom started out as a California based nonprofit in the Anderson Valley region of northern Mendocino County. We settled here as a group of friends, migrating from major cities around the U.S. to seek a lifestyle rooted in nature. This was our back-to-the-land moment. In 2017, we started to notice the major impact that wildfires were having on the entire region, not just in terms of the direct destruction, but also in impacts on the human psyche. As we got to know our neighbors in the surrounding community, we began to understand that these natural pattern changes, such as increased drought severity, were having a profound effect on the community at large.
This connection is easily missed, coming from large cities where most people do not rely on the surrounding environment for daily survival, but rather on supermarkets and box stores. In rural settings like Anderson Valley, the connection between humans and land is more obvious. The first sign for us came in the form of dramatic fluctuations in temperature and a drastic fall-off in rainfall we experienced on ‘The Land.’ With the headwaters of the Navarro River originating on our 160 acre property, this was a big deal.
Among the watershed’s rolling hills, once prevalent redwood groves, apple and pear orchards, and vineyards, this was a landscape transformed by human development, and this once thriving agricultural community was starting to experience the impact of early desertification and climate change.
What was once a slowly encroaching water crisis, over the last two decades, accelerated rapidly during our time here. The Navarro river that once flowed year-round through The Land, now slows to a trickle or even a dry river bed during several summer months. The multitude of water rights granted to farmers in the valley, with requirements to draw water out of the river in the dry summer months, was adding to decades old problems of over sedimentation, and rapidly declining function in the hydrological cycle.
As we got more connected to the soil, we also began to get more connected with our own humanity. We discovered a source of purpose and joy in working with the soil, and it started to inform and influence our desire to contribute to those around us.
In the early days of the pandemic we started baking bread for our neighbors, and offering weekly meals to the homeless in neighboring communities like Ukiah and Fort Bragg.
In keeping with the philosophy that “the things we refuse are the things we should choose,” this quickly evolved into us sewing masks and sending them to prisons. We wanted to demonstrate that the discarded humanity we found in jails could be restored to dignity through work and purpose. Hence, our program the ‘Prison Monastery’ was born.
The Prison Monastery
The Prison Monastery is a place where the incarcerated, removed from the pressures and demands of society, can contemplate their actions with dignity, and find their natural human capacity for contribution. It was designed with the purpose of restoring penal institutions to their original purpose: a place that fosters penitence. In fact, prisons in the United States were originally referred to as penitentiaries which, as former prison resident and philosopher C.S. Deriso described in a 1968 essay published in the Criminology Journal “…Penitentiaries evolved from the medieval idea of seclusion and meditation for sin. Their central purpose, to provide a place for repentance through isolation and reflection, has long been out of favor with modern penologists.”
What began as a trickle of creative thinking eventually developed into a flood. John Liu, who pioneered compelling documentation of ecorestoration projects in the desertified plains of Western China, highlands of Ethiopia, and other places around the world demonstrated that even small, relatively localized attempts at ecological restoration or “rewilding” could have great downstream effects on surrounding ecosystems.
If we could marry the two ideas – rehumanizing society by restoring prison residents to dignity through contemplation and purpose – and rewilding nature through ecorestoration projects on prison grounds – we might achieve a profound impact in terms of reclaiming both humanity and space for nature.
But we needed a demonstration project to get the ball rolling. It all began with a phone call to the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) in Chowchilla, at the onset of the pandemic. The prison was under lockdown. Their support system of outside programming could no longer enter the facility.
The Prison Monastery program launched here, the largest women’s prison in the United States, with its Art of Soulmaking correspondence program. 545 women have enrolled in the program at CCWF since November 2020, and 6 inmate-led groups are currently running inside the institution’s housing units.
Unconditional Freedom now operates in over 100 prisons across the United States with 4,000 participants in The Art Of Soulmaking, supported by 300 trained & certified volunteers. The program has been accepted on two prison tablet providers, which will soon enable it to reach a combined 240,000 individuals incarcerated. 30% of those on the death row unit are enrolled in the Art of Soulmaking program, and the prison staff psychologist guides 3 participant-led “Soulmaker Study Groups” based on the AoS book. The newly launched Guards To Guardians program for correctional officers is supported by 14 mentoring officers with over 250 combined years of experience. Through its programs, participants have reported a 24% reduction in feelings of depression, anger, and reported significance of drugs and alcohol in their lives, and a 16% reduction in anger.
The full prison monastery system includes a jail garden, an ecological restoration program, improved food nutrition, weekly Art of Soulmaking, meditation, and yoga. A regenerative farmer and educator leads the incarcerated men and women in tending to vegetable beds, growing their own food that goes directly into the meals prepared by the kitchen that feeds them, and working their way towards certification in regenerative agriculture and ecosystem restoration. In 2023, Unconditional Freedom will begin rolling out prison monastery systems in facilities across the country.
Rather than discard or reject, we see the unique and essential gifts of these populations, with the recognition that both prisoners and society as a whole suffer in the absence of the unique expression of each human. Our approach works from the ground up, eliciting a natural human capacity and desire for contribution by starting with physical healing of the body, then nourishment of the soul, then liberation of the mind. Unconditional Freedom invites you to come along with us on the journey, seeing through the eyes of those that the program touches, and those committed to its vision, in the feature documentary At Home and In The World
This is how we change the world from the ground up.
To Donate and support Unconditional Freedom’s efforts, please click here.
”You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.— Buckminster Fuller