Timothy James Young, currently 53 years old, has been incarcerated for 24 years, and has lived on San Quentin State Prison’s Death Row for 17 of them. Young has maintained his innocence since his arrest, and believes that false testimony against him only arose from a deal with a jail informant. Living on Death Row, according to Young, entails frequent lockdowns, strip searches, and handcuffing every time a person leaves their cell. “On paper, we’re supposed to average 14 hours of yard per week. In reality, we often spend up to 24 hours a day inside the cell,” Young wrote. There is minimal movement in the unit and no opportunity for jobs, vocations, or programming.
Young is a published writer, poet, artist, and activist. He coordinates with Solitary Gardens, a collaborative artistic project in which people held in solitary confinement work with community members on the outside to plant seeds—literally in an urban garden, and metaphorically in society towards an abolitionist future. Readers can follow Timothy Young on Instagram, check out his website, write to him at: Timothy Young F23374, San Quentin State Prison, San Quentin, California, 94964, or add him as a contact on the GettingOut email system using his prison number: F23374. —Valerie Kiebala
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Movement? What is movement to a man who is forced to spend the majority of his time cooped up in a four-and-a-half-by-ten-foot cell on San Quentin’s Death Row? The answer to that question came to me one day when a pigeon flew in through one of the building’s broken windows and swooped down onto the 4th tier, where I am housed. It landed, took a few awkward, apprehensive steps, and stopped right in front of my cell. Once it spotted me, it perked up and looked at me in the most perplexing, peculiar way. It seemed to be saying, “Wow, even I have more freedom of movement than you!”
That got me thinking and sent me down a rabbit hole of thoughts. It is certainly true that COVID and long-term incarceration have robbed me of some of my mobility. My bones and my body certainly don’t move the way they used to. But I wonder, if not for other forms of “movement,” would I even have breath to breathe? Would I have lived to see my 50s?
As a Black man in America, “movement” is my DNA. My family tree not only leads back to 1619, but there is a continual line of struggle from the fight to abolish slavery, to the civil rights era, to Black Lives Matter, to the uprising that took place after the police murder of George Floyd. These struggles…these movements…are silhouettes of Blackness. They are inherited. They are bequeathed. They are a daily part of life.
With a plethora of “movements” to pull from, perhaps there is none more important than my own.
I am a wrongfully convicted prisoner. I have been incarcerated since 1999. If you were to Google me right now, you would probably be impressed with the imagery and information that your search engine spits out. You would probably think to yourself, “Wow, this guy not only has a legitimate innocence claim, but he has the force of a full-blown freedom campaign at his back.” Those findings would be true, but they don’t account for the fact that before there was a movement on my case, cause, or appeal—there was nothing! Absolutely nothing!
I had to make my own movement happen. And in my case, trying to make it happen is equivalent to the concept of making something out of nothing. It is akin to pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It’s an act of magic.
To say that I started at the bottom is an understatement. In 1999, I was a young Black male, falsely accused, charged with murder and facing the death penalty. I was placed in the Hole. I had no contacts, no resources, no money, and no help. All I had was hope. I clung to it like a climber on the edge of a cliff. But what I quickly learned is that hope, faith, et cetera, without action, are dead.
Since hope does not compel movement, or carry favor in a court of law, I decided to educate myself, better myself, and study up on the law while I was waiting on the wheels of justice to turn. Having done that, and having fought as hard as I could, I was still wrongfully convicted and sentenced to death.
Upon arriving to Death Row in 2006, I found myself in the same motionless boat: no money, no resources, no support, and no momentum. I didn’t let that stop me, though. Instead, I hit the ground running. I was not going to allow the criminal (in)justice system to render me moribund. No one would have the pleasure of saying that I, Timothy James Young, was either broken or tabescent.
I went to work! When the other guys were watching TMZ—I was reading. When they were doing pushups—I was composing poetry. That was my mind state. I tried to stay busy, positive, and productive. I reached out to every church, politician, organization, and group that I could think of until I got a little traction. Finally, because of my writing, activism, and advocacy work, people began to take notice. It took two decades—but they noticed!
In 2019, the stars and the universe aligned when author, activist, and award winning artist jackie sumell asked me to become a collaborator in Solitary Gardens. I accepted. My role in the public art sculpture and participatory garden project was to get people to imagine a landscape without prisons. That’s what I do. Apparently, I’m good at it. Because of this, many doors and opportunities have opened up for me. I have become the Solitary Gardener at UC Santa Cruz, a contributor to the EXPOSED Project, a collaborator and exhibited artist at the San José Museum of Art, a collaborator with Reasonable Doubt(s), a participant and client in Making an Exoneree, and, lastly, a fellow at the Institute of the Arts and Sciences at UC Santa Cruz.
Even though I had less freedom of movement than that little gray, speckled pigeon that had looked at me all cock-eyed—I still managed to make things happen. I still managed to create. Not by luck—but through blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice. In the end, movement is not necessarily a matter of the mind, but rather, a matter of action. And although I am not yet free—I am not static!