The premise is simple, really: Thriving people commit far fewer crimes, and thriving ecosystems produce far smaller fires.
There was always something about the experience of passing by prisons on the highway, as I often did while driving between Los Angeles and San Francisco, and in the environs of Boulder, Colorado, where I went to college, that made me want to look away. These bare, foreboding enclosures of concrete and barbed wire instantly filled me with the kind of dread one feels when seeing a yellow hazmat sign warning of the presence of toxic waste.
A similar feeling haunted me when I lived in those very same urban centers of Los Angeles and San Francisco, as I sometimes made my way home by unavoidably passing through homeless encampments. My initial, almost immediately visceral reaction was to look away. That same prickly, displaced, uneasy feeling also crept up on me on a rural farm in Mendocino County, California, where, when I passed some summers there, neighbors would show up after their homes had just burned down by in megafires, and their possessions were forcibly reduced to what little they could pack into their cars as they fled.
It was then that I realized the disease of discarding people and things had finally made its way home to me. In the face of such need and vulnerability, I knew that I could no longer look away. My long-held distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ gave way to a realization that those challenges which affect some of us ultimately affect us all.
It began to dawn on me that our collective ‘looking away’ was at least part of the cause of a very real and very dire human problem. We try to discard the homeless, the poor, the imprisoned, because they don’t fit the mold of what many of us think valued members of our society should be like. Bu there’s the ground truth of this unthinking, almost reflexive categorization exercise we often engage in: The more we ignore these populations, and the more we ignore the root causes that are growing the ranks of these populations, the closer to home these problems land.
The runaway forest fires in Northern California of recent years are largely the result of overdevelopment and poor land management. This is a stark example of the same inattention that has allowed homelessness and mass incarceration to grow like those very same wildfires in our society. We created the Unconditional Freedom Project to face up to a series of human ‘moral’ failures, and, most importantly, to develop more effective ways to address the root causes of myriad of society’s challenges that have resulted in this state of wastefulness and destruction.
These challenges have demonstrable real-world costs and consequences. Fire. damage in the U.S. in 2020 alone destroyed more than 10.2 million acres of land – the highest yearly total since accurate records were first tabulated in 1983. Consequently, these fires incurred more than $16.5 billion in property damage and fire suppression costs. Indirect costs, including the value of destroyed and damaged capital, the health costs related to air pollution exposure and losses due to broader economic disruption, were almost ten-fold that amount.
The loss trend looks remarkably similar when it comes to mass incarceration. Although we make up only five percent of the earth’s population, the U.S. holds more than 20 percent of the world’s prisoners. Our incarcerated population has increased by 500 percent, to more than two million people, since 1970, a number that far outpaces U.S. population growth over that very same period.
One in every three black boys are expected to go to prison in their lifetime, as are one in every six Hispanic boys, compared to one in 17 white males. Additionally, women are now the fastest growing prison population in the U.S.
The average cost to individual states to hold a person in prison range from $20,000 to a whopping $106,000 per year, and the U.S now collectively spends about $100 billion per year on prisons, a more than three-fold increase since 2011. A primary driver of increasing costs of incarceration is the so called “revolving door” of prisons. Recidivism and increasing security costs incurred by repeat offenders drive costs higher over time. Clearly these trends are not sustainable.
We can all agree that crime and megafires are both monstrous problems with no easy solutions. After expending significant efforts over the last few decades to find viable solutions in each case, without effective results, it’s now worth asking: What if we are looking at both issues from the wrong perspective? Instead of spending an ever-increasing amount of time and energy trying to suppress crime and fires, perhaps we could instead focus on restoring people and the natural environment to a state of thriving.
The premise is simple, really: Thriving people commit far fewer crimes, and thriving ecosystems produce far smaller fires.
Warren Brush, an internationally renowned ecologist and permaculturist, believes that “In systems theory, all new energy enters from the edge so the idea of working with edge dwellers, like those in prisons, could be a powerful way to contribute to changing the greater system that is so extractive and out of alignment with natural patterns.”
Restoring people and nature to their original essence is the driving purpose behind a series of service-oriented endeavors undertaken by the non-profit Unconditional Freedom Project. One of the Project’s most foundational ideas is: Contrary to the widely assumed notion that we are expecting too much of our institutions, we may in fact be asking too little of them. For example, what if instead of merely accepting prisons’ institutional imperatives, that is, the emphasis on security and containment, we could envision prisons as places that foster human development and even human thriving?
This ethos corresponds to Aristotle’s ethical ideal of eudaemonia, or ‘living well.’ It is a state of being that Dr. Christine Whelan, a leading happiness researcher and author , describes as “living on purpose,” which entails bringing our most cherished values and innate strengths into alignment, and then directing them toward serving society. Where hedonia is the pursuit of pleasure, eudaemonia is the pursuit of purpose and fulfillment.
The idea that the more effective way to address transgressive behavior is not with punishment, but with seclusion from society and providing the time, space, and tools to restore oneself, (that is, to find eudaemonia), is not a new one. In fact, prison resident and scholar C.S. Deriso, in a 1968 essay published in the Criminology Journal, presented a historical argument in favor of a so-called Monastic Model for “prison scholarly communities,” writing: “…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.”
The prison penitentiary was a place where society would send those who transgressed against its laws to undergo a period of penance, contemplating the impact of their crimes, and arriving at a sense of remorse or contrition. The key idea was that the process of penitence was to not only involve self-development, but also contribution to and connection with society.
The Genesis of Unconditional Freedom Project
Unconditional Freedom Project, which began formal operations in 2020, currently consists of three core projects, one of which has been structured to demonstrate that prisons can and should be places of reflection and growth:
- Prisons to Monasteries–A human development program that incorporates the Art of Soulmaking curriculum for prison residents and integrates with “The Earth Program” to create sustainable farms and gardens at prisons. The Art of Soulmaking curriculum engages residents in a series of practices such as meditation, journaling, letter -writing, and selected readings on contemplation, purpose and eudaimonia. Participants are given questionnaires both at the beginning and end of the program to assess their states of well-being, as measured by self-reported levels of stress, anger, optimism, and depression.
- TheEarthProgram–A project to restore the earth’s bounty through ecologically sustainable land management.
- Lovet to Table(alsocalled“FreeFood”)–A program to feed high-quality, ethically sourced food to the poor and unhoused.
Unconditional Freedom Project’s organizational roots date back to the early days of OneTaste, a wellness and lifestyle company founded by San Francisco native Nicole Daedone in 2004. OneTaste provided courses and mindfulness practices, particularly on the practice and philosophy of Orgasmic Meditation, which improved wellbeing, focus, emotional intelligence, connection, and fulfillment. The programs now offered under the auspices of Unconditional Freedom Project had their origins in OneTaste’s work with the non-profit community in San Francisco.
The notion of a conceptual application of achieving a state of societal wellbeing, or eudaimonia through ecological and social restoration, began to percolate during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many of us congregated in early 2020 at The Land, a retreat center and farm nestled in California’s Anderson Valley, to wait out the first months of the virus’ worldwide sweep. As the situation evolved, we began to see the societal disruption caused by the COVID crisis as an opening for us to begin ramping up the development of Unconditional Freedom Project. We thus began to develop and deploy our sets of community service endeavors.
The basic framework undergirding Unconditional Freedom Project is that true freedom is available to every human being, irrespective of external conditions. In fact, we believe that conditions in places like prisons, where residents’ lives are strictly regulated, or homelessness, through which human beings are involuntarily dissolved of possessions, or the dependable anchors of one place, one home, can foster introspection in a way that can help heal emotional wounds, and lead individuals to discover new and expanded purpose and meaningfulness in their lives. Unconditional Freedom Project is Eudaimonia, Applied “at Scale”.
The idea of eudaimonia, or good spirit, also brings into focus the ‘daemon’ or the soul. The self and the ego, according to German psychologist Carl Jung, are often at odds with each other and require a process of integration (individuation) to complete the human spirit. Often, it is these parts of ourselves that we try to suppress or deny, our “shadow selves,” that contain hidden strengths which we can harness and use to our benefit. Moreover, Jung cautioned, the unexamined aspects of ourselves will, if not acknowledged and integrated, ultimately destroy us. In suggesting we acknowledge and work with our own shadows, Jung was advocating for a deeper self-knowledge that would harness those very characteristics we tend to sublimate and hide from public scrutiny and use them in service of ourselves and society.
And at scale, organizations and even nations can experience this process of individuation in that those elements of our society that we try to suppress, or discard, can if integrated correctly, become strengths that can move us all forward. For example, rather than tossing those who have transgressed society’s boundaries away into prisons, perhaps we can restore the penitentiary to its original purpose as an environment that can foster contemplation, reflection, and transformation. We could, in effect, turn prisons into monasteries that foster human development and societal flourishing.
Unconditional Freedom Project’s Prisons to Monasteries educational and ecological enrichment program has opened up two pilot projects at the Mendocino County (Calif.) Jail and the Central California Women’s facility. Additionally, the educational curriculum has also been introduced through satellite programs at 44 penal institutions throughout the United States. Self-reported results from prison residents who have completed the Art of Soulmaking program indicate the following:
✔ Stress decreased by 26 percent
✔ Anger decreased by 20 percent
✔ Optimism increased by 14 percent
✔ Depression decreased by 26 percent
✔ Gratitude increased by 14 percent
A pocket-sized book called Remembering, published by Soulmaker Press, contains reflections written by more than 100 prison residents who participated in the Art of Soulmaking program. Among their thoughts are reports of being able“to live free inside of prison.” Othersrevealed that they had gained “mutual respect from inmates and staff.” Another class participant stated:
I think I really get what you said about there not being enough space for people to remember each other’s humanity. To me, the pace of societies is also a contributor. There’s this lack of patience, (a) constant drive for instant gratification…which clouds people’s perception… It takes time and space to get to know people, to listen and be able to see the humanness.
The Art of Soulmaking program is soon being followed up by a sister program, Guards to Guardians, which will be available to corrections officers, medical staff, and institutional leaders and managers within prisons. Guards to Guardians seeks to help these staffers transformt he traumatic effects of working in a prison setting into a sense of mission and purpose. For example, guards are recognized / recast as guardians – people whose mission is to safeguard and guide incarcerated residents’ work of penitence.
Sheriff Matt Kendall, who oversees the Mendocino County Jail, relates to the idea of “taking it back to basics and having a ‘Prison Monastery,’ or a jail monastery.”
He says, “People think that that is a new idea or a novel idea. No, that is the ultimate back to basics. It really is because incarceration basically started as that [institution] where you were sequestered away to think about your crimes, and to get right with the man [upstairs] and get right with the victims of your crimes.”
“Plus,” Sheriff Kendall adds, “these folks [from Unconditional Freedom Project] have come in and they’re working with my corrections officers because when you think about this, this is a big society. And the corrections officers, corrections deputies that work in there, they’re a portion of that society. We want to keep them mentally healthy, physically healthy, in the exact same fashion that we want to keep, you know, those folks who are serving a little time with us mentally healthy and physically healthy. And because they take that all into account, we are seeing improvements daily.”
Unconditional Freedom Project’s prison efforts continue to evolve, and rapidly:
- The Art of Soulmaking program, launched at the Central California Women’s Facility in November 2020 with 73 students, now has over 900 enrolled students across 44 facilities in the United States.
- The first self-initiated Soulmaker group on Death Row launched in December 2021, at the Holman Corrections Facility in Alabama. Over 4.5 percent of the entire Death Row population of the U.S. is now enrolled in The Art of Soulmaking program.
- Art of Soulmaking has been approved as an administration-supported program at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, NY State women’s prison, which is currently the only maximum-security women’s prison in the United States. Approval came after a 13-month review cycle.
- Art of Soulmaking was approved as an administration-supported program at the California Medical Facility, a hospital and hospice center for the California Dept of Corrections.
- Unconditional Freedom Project launched its Guards to Guardians program in March 2022, starting at the Mendocino County Jail.
- And, the Mendocino County Jail, the premier jail to adopt the Prison Monastery programs, now offers a jail garden, limited farm-to-table food, weekly yoga classes, weekly Art of Soulmaking study groups, and The Art of Soulmaking correspondence program free for all residents and guardians.
Unconditional Freedom Project’s other core demonstration projects, Love to Table and The Earth Program, operate in conjunction with Prisons to Monasteries to foster an ecology of restorative practices.
Love to Table, for example, helps to restore dignity among the poor and unhoused by serving them nutritious, well-prepared, and ethically and elegant settings, mirroring the dining experience of high-end farm-to-table restaurants.
The Earth Program develops ecologically sustainable agricultural and agricultural and land use practices on the The Land and partner farms in Mendocino County, and supplies food from those farms to Love-to-Table. It also works in prisons to establish prison-based ecological projects to reclaim undeveloped land on prison campuses for resident-managed gardens and apiaries.
Unconditional Freedom Project’s integrated approach to restoring human dignity among marginalized populations and restoring natural habitats is guided by the eco-restoration efforts of award-winning documentary filmmaker and pioneering ecologist John Liu. Liu serves as a consultant to Unconditional Freedom Project and presented its prison-based eco-restoration program to the United Nations’ Decade on Ecosystems Restoration in January 2022. Liu’s vision for ecological restoration sees the mission to to reclaim earth’s abundant functionality as the key to humanity’s survival.
“After decades of observation and study about the Earth’s natural ecological systems and the consequences of human impact on the Earth’s biodiversity, hydrological function, fertility, and climate regulation,” Liu argues, “my conclusion is that the size of the solution must be equal to the size of the problem. To ensure that we succeed, we can’t just tackle the easy tasks, we must learn to choose to restore the hardest, the most difficult, the most degraded states.”
We bury our trash in landfills.
We bury our ‘trashy’ people in prisons.
The result, at scale, is that we have a massive and compounding problem of waste that crowds out nature, and we have a massive problem of creating human waste that crowds out opportunities for societal restoration and flourishing.
Unconditional Freedom Project is fully dedicated to fundamentally curing the ills that face society – through understanding that by “rewilding” nature, and “rehumanizing” human society both man and nature can thrive.