Rasheed Lockheart at home in Oakland, CA
“With Planting Justice, I get to really do what I think I was meant to do, and that is be of service,” says Rasheed Lockheart. Credit: Pete Rosos

2020 was always meant to be a big year for Rasheed Lockheart.

On January 30, the 42-year-old was released from San Quentin prison after spending nearly all of the last 27 years incarcerated in facilities up and down California. Save for one year when he was 24, Lockheart had been locked up since he was 15. 

Now he’s at home in Oakland for the first time in 18 years, in the middle of an unprecedented period of social upheaval. 

“Getting out during this COVID crisis and with everything that’s going on with George Floyd has put me in an emotional prison,” Lockheart said. “I’ve never felt more helpless in my life. You would think incarceration would do that to me, but it’s not true.”

Lockheart grew up in Los Angeles in the ’80s with his mom. She struggled with substance use issues, and money was hard to come by. It was during those early years that Lockheart first experienced the very racism and state violence the country is now reckoning with.

“I remember as a kid being pulled over by the cops and them pulling up and saying ‘Don’t fucking move, I’ll shoot you, I promise.’” Lockheart said.   

From those early interactions with police to the harsh sentencing policies that would later keep him incarcerated for most of his life, Lockheart has felt the weight of a disproportionate, unequal justice system. His most recent prison sentence was 24 years, for an armed robbery that netted $80. Fifteen of those years were tacked on for enhancements due to gun possession and prior offenses. He was granted parole after serving 18 years.

Until 2018, a section of California’s penal code known as the “10-20-Life Law” required courts to add additional years—anywhere from three years to life in prison without parole—to sentences for people at least 14 years old who were in possession of a gun during a felony crime. While the gun enhancement law hasn’t been eliminated completely, Senate Bill 620, passed in 2017, gave courts the discretion to choose whether or not to include enhancements in their sentencing. 

Although Lockheart is now free, he can’t join his neighbors in Oakland protesting for an end to systemic racism and police violence against Black people. He’s on parole, and that risk is too high. Parole terms in California and across the nation are notoriously strict, and if Lockheart happened to be at a demonstration where a building was vandalized or an altercation occurred with the police, that would be enough to warrant a parole violation and send him back to prison. 

“I didn’t come this far for something like that to happen,” Lockheart said. “So it puts me in a place of feeling hopeless—like I have to do something, but I can’t.”

‘I get to do what I was meant to do’

Unable to protest on the streets but unwilling to ignore the moment, Lockheart found other ways to channel his desire to be a part of the current movement.

Earlier this month, Lockheart participated in an episode of Uncuffed, a podcast that airs on the Bay Area radio station KALW. In the episode, he joined others in reading a letter written to a friend or family member in prison. Lockheart wrote to his friend Terry at San Quentin, reminiscing about their time together at the prison, describing the “survivor’s guilt” he now feels on the outside, and pledging to be a voice for those still on the inside. “You will fight to survive because that’s what you’ve always done,” he wrote. “I know it’s easy for me to say out here, so I won’t push. It’s ground zero and it seems as if there is no help coming. But I, we, will fight. I will use my every word for whoever will listen.”

His day job with the Oakland-based economic and food justice organization, Planting Justice, has become a vehicle for activism, too. 

Lockheart first connected with Planting Justice co-founders Gavin Raders and Haleh Zandi at San Quentin in 2013, when he was helping to plant a garden at the prison through the Inside Garden Program. Raders and Zandi were still in the early days of building their organization then, Lockheart recalls, borrowing tools and vehicles to carry out their work of promoting economic justice through gardening and food sovereignty.  

Since 2009, Planting Justice has sought to use food as a vehicle to reverse generational poverty and support people transitioning from prison. Today, the organization builds permaculture gardens throughout the Bay Area and teaches formerly incarcerated people about nutrition, ecological design, and the connection between food justice and social justice. Much of the work happens on their four-acre farm in El Sobrante, and through partnerships with local schools and correctional facilities. Bay Area residents can hire Planting Justice to design a permaculture garden in their yard, and cultivate their green thumb by getting a year of mentorship.

In 2016, Planting Justice bought a two-acre plant nursery in Sobrante Park near 105th Ave. in East Oakland. The organization plans to eventually hand the property over to local Native community members, through a partnership with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, an indigenous women-led organization working to return indigenous land to Native peoples.

“With Planting Justice, I get to really do what I think I was meant to do, and that is be of service,” said Lockheart, who joined the organization soon after his release. He’d originally planned to go into firefighting—he’d worked at San Quentin’s firehouse for two years—but a felony on his record would have prevented him from getting an EMT certification, which is often required to apply for firefighting jobs. 

In order to stay in the Bay Area after his release, he needed to prove to the parole office that he had reasons to remain in the area, like a job or a support network. In March 2019 he wrote to Planting Justice to see if they’d offer him a job. It had been years since Lockheart was in touch with Planting Justice, but Raders and Zandi replied with a letter pledging to employ him upon his release. 

As a reentry coordinator, he now connects other formerly incarcerated people with resources to help navigate the process of settling back into the community. He also facilitates a monthly circle for men to talk about how they’re feeling and what types of support they need. Lockheart utilizes group facilitation techniques he learned while inside San Quentin through his involvement with a host of mentorship and emotional healing programs like SQUIRES, House of Healing, and Project Choice.

Lockheart also supports fundraising for Planting Justice and is a member of the organization’s peace council, which is tasked with addressing conflicts among the team. 

“[Planting Justice], in their genius minds, have figured out that when people get out of prison, the biggest gateway drug there is, is not having jobs,” Lockheart said. “They wanted to supply people with jobs because they forget people get out and they don’t have jobs, so they don’t have resources. Nine times out of 10, they’re gonna fall back to what they knew, right?”

In California, when a person is released from state prison, they get a debit card with $200 loaded onto it. That “gate money” can quickly shrink after clothing, transportation, and other immediate costs are deducted. With no guarantees of a job, housing, or a supportive community to welcome them back, many formerly incarcerated people quickly wind up back in prison. 

As of 2019, the national recidivism rate—the percentage of people who commit a crime within three years of leaving custody—among people convicted of violent crimes stood at 64%. California isn’t too far behind with an average recidivism rate of about 50% over the last decade. 

‘I feel guilty that I made it out’

Though the last five-and-a-half months have been an adjustment for Lockheart, he says he’s felt fortunate enough to be spared some of the greater challenges people face in their reentry process. He attributes the smoother journey to having a stable, fulfilling place of employment, his Muslim faith, and the profound introspective work and healing he was able to do while incarcerated. 

2006 was a turning point, Lockheart said. “I decided that if I died on a prison yard, I couldn’t die the person that I was,” he said. He took stock of everything he’d survived, including stabbings and shootings, and realized his survival up to that point indicated he was meant for something greater. With the help of his faith and a supportive group of men he’d met in Folsom Prison, Lockheart decided to forgive himself and recognize his value. 

“I was worth something, and not in a monetary sense, but like, in a personal sense, and I owed myself to live in that value because I deserved better than what I was allowing myself to be,” he said.

While navigating a global pandemic in his first few months out of prison is challenging, Lockheart says he’s accustomed to feelings of confinement. What weighs on his heart most heavily is watching from afar as friends and loved ones are helpless to the spread of Covid-19 in a facility where he was once housed.

The coronavirus has spread like wildfire inside San Quentin, after a poorly executed transfer of residents from the California Institute for Men at Chino caused an outbreak. As of July 15, 10 people had died and there were 1,302 active cases of Covid-19 in the correctional facility with a total population of 3,392. 

“I feel guilty that I made it out,” Lockheart said. During his last two years in San Quentin, Lockheart was a first responder, a firefighter on the ambulance crew. He saw firsthand the failures of the institution’s medical system, an experience he calls “life-changing.” Lockheart says he performed CPR on dozens of fellow residents, not all of whom survived, during his tenure as a first responder. 

“I’ve seen the darkest side of what prison has to offer… and I still can’t imagine what this time is like,” Lockheart said of being in prison during the pandemic. “It’s like being a crab in a bucket where they’re just standing over the bucket, shooting into the bucket, there’s nowhere for you to go.”

Recently, Lockheart got a letter in the mail. It was from a friend still incarcerated in San Quentin who was essentially writing to say goodbye. He wanted Lockheart to know that if he didn’t manage to survive the outbreak in the facility, Lockheart had “a special place in his heart.” 

“What do I do with that?” Lockheart said. “These guys in there feel like they’re absolutely powerless, and that it’s not a matter of if, but when. And that breaks my heart.”

Lockheart can’t extinguish the Covid-19 outbreak in San Quentin or quell his sense of survivor’s guilt, but he is committed to building a more equitable justice system and helping to extend the same opportunities he’s been given to build a life for himself outside of prison.

“As many jobs as we can provide for those coming out of incarceration, the better.  As many urban gardens as we can get into the communities, the better.” Lockheart said. “These food deserts—we’ve got to knock them down, and the best way to do it is to show people how to grow their own healthy food.”