by Marissa Ward
When I said goodbye to one of the men on our garden crew who was being released the following day, I did not realize it would also be my last day volunteering at the Mendocino County Jail (MCJ).
Two years ago, I was invited by Unconditional Freedom to volunteer at the jail garden with their incarcerated work crew; a nonprofit I would then go on to work for down the line as the Prison Monastery Program Manager. This was an unexpected offer since I am not a gardener by trade. Not to mention the fact that I’d never been to an actual jail before. I was arrested once for a DUI ten years ago and spent the night in booking but other than that, I didn’t have any direct experiences with incarceration. So this latest offer did not seem, at first glance, a good fit for me.
But over the years, I’ve learned to trust my intuition, and something inside of me wanted to say yes.
The day I went to MCJ to get my fingerprints recorded for the high-level background and security check I’d need to pass before I could become a volunteer at the jail, I remember feeling waves of emotion during the initial tour. You think you know what jail is like from movies, or from hearing stories of acquaintances who have done some time, but it hits differently when you’re there. Men and women are confined to cages or locked inside of cells. They do not have a say in when or whether they get to come out, even at a facility with caring staff. I know, that’s the gig when you’re sent to jail, but does it have to be?
That’s what Unconditional Freedom, our nonprofit dedicated to serving incarcerated persons and correctional officers, sets out to do: transform carceral environments into monasteries. Prison Monasteries, as our project is called, is not a monastery in the explicitly religious sense but in essence, a place where one goes to journey into contemplation and self-reflection, a place free from the distractions of a material world, a place where the only thing required of you is to simply be.
Then we upped the ante, we asked, what if jails and prisons become a place where we cultivate human flourishing? We made Prison Monastery the setting and constructed four pillars for the set: healing through restoring the earth, connection with our food, liberation of the mind, and contribution from our souls. We believe that this is a map to achieving human flourishing and the necessary ingredients for our Prison Monastery Program.
It all started with the jail garden. I loved being out there and getting to watch the bare grounds evolve into a lush garden, filled with beds that overflowed with produce, herbs, and flowers. Seemingly endless varieties of plants began to sprout; tomatoes and squash, broccoli, kale, cabbage, lettuce, and melons, just to name a few. The day I found out that fresh garden watermelon was beginning to replace candy inside the walls, I knew we were onto something! I started to recognize the markers of a thriving garden. I would see an increase in bird species or an influx of butterflies, and many bees pollinating. Our nonprofit donated two hives to the jail during our first season there, but I knew the garden was especially lit when I saw them buzzing around from sunrise to sunset.
For as beautiful as the garden was, and the infinite amount of awe and wonder it inspired in me, I was there for the people, first and foremost. My people. People who come from darkness and struggle. People who are resilient because that is their key to survival. People who have gifts to share with few outlets to express them, gifts that go unrecognized because they’re not packaged in a way that society deems appropriate.
Our garden crew is one of the most brilliant and resourceful groups of people I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing. On a particularly hot day, our irrigation system broke promptly after planting new starts that were going to need water over the weekend. While I was trying to get a hold of maintenance, one of the guys calmly fixed it. He walked into the shed, found miscellaneous parts that seemed like junk, and arranged them in such a way that restored the irrigation line. I asked how he knew how to do that, and he said, “When you live on the streets, you know how to make do with whatever you got.”
Another man who spent the majority of his adult life in and out of jail said it was the place he discovered that he loved reading, so he started reading books on gardening and beekeeping so he could have new ideas to contribute to our garden plans.
One of the women on our crew jumped at the chance to take care of our garden chickens. She told me that raising chickens was one of the fonder memories from her own abusive childhood.
Another woman opted to stay on the garden crew despite her bee allergy because she wanted to apply the skills she acquired growing up on her mother’s farm, skills she always dismissed as irrelevant, but now realized were incredibly needed.
Each of the crew members echoed a similar sentiment during their time working in the garden — that when they get out there the razor wire disappears, and they remember themselves; not what they’ve done or who they were on their worst day, but who they are at their core.
Mendocino County Jail quickly became the fullest expression of the Prison Monastery. We worked closely with Kate Feigin, the Restorative Justice Program Manager, and Sheriff Matthew Kendall, to bring this expression to life there. The process of healing began to occur among the garden crews. Connection started with homegrown vegetables transferred from the garden crew to the kitchen crew to prepare for jail meals. Liberation of the mind developed through our Art of Soulmaking program content, and contribution through art, poetry, mentorship programs, apiary instruction, agricultural classes, and so much more.
While I moonlight as a gardener, I am a teacher — that is what I do. I facilitate groups, classes and workshops, coach one on one, and I’m currently training to become a drug and alcohol counselor as well. When the jail was ready to include the Art of Soulmaking workbook in their programming, I started teaching two classes each week, one for men and one for women. The program was originally designed to run solely as a correspondence course, created during the peak of COVID to act as a monastery-in-a-workbook format. But since I lived nearby and had already built rapport with the jail’s staff and residents, I wanted to offer an in-person experience too. Not everyone had this option; most of the incarcerated people there were ineligible for in-person programming according to their security classification. I would have been happy to teach the “hard cases,” but apparently that demographic is seen as beyond hope by some.
I used my experience with curriculum design to reformat the Art of Soulmaking workbook into a live workshop. Once a week for eight weeks, a cohort would come together to practice yoga, sitting meditation, and reflective writing, while also having group discussions on topics like the innate goodness of all humans, working with pain, alchemizing emotions and difficult experiences, and the process of forgiveness.
During a lesson on innate goodness, I watched a young man grapple with his vengeance. He was sexually assaulted as a kid and vowed that when he got out of jail, he was going to law school so he could become a prosecutor and seek the death penalty for every pedophile in the state. I could feel his pain and rage fill the room as his energy became dark and breathless, like a scared child hiding away for safety. Instead of trying to change his mind, I sat with him in that space. I saw him at his most vulnerable, and I met him there to the best of my ability. I posed the question, “Is it possible that even those who commit the grossest of crimes have good at their core, and what would it look like to remind them of that?” He hated that question but sat with it, concluding that maybe rather than sentencing them to death, they could be aimed towards rehabilitation and kept behind prison walls to ensure the safety of our young ones. Just like that, his purpose made a shift from vengeance to the restoration of humanity.
During a lesson on forgiveness, a woman shared about her daughter being kidnapped and murdered five years ago. She knows who did it, and she doesn’t think it’s possible to forgive them. She’s kept herself in jail for long periods of time ever since because she’s afraid she’ll be tempted to take justice into her own hands if she’s on the outs for too long. She asked me if I thought that sounded crazy. I told her it’s not crazy at all, and that I think she’s brave for buying time in an environment with structure and protection while she figures out her next steps towards healing this unimaginable wound.
When I first started volunteering at the jail, others wrote this same woman off as crazy and I thought to myself, how many people know her story and are still categorizing her that way? How many could be in her shoes and not suffer from mental episodes and PTSD? Her story became an anchor for me. On difficult days when I wanted to quit or give up, I remembered how vital it is to recreate the carceral system as a place for healing, connection, liberation, and contribution. I was reminded that there are people depending on this place to be conducive for human flourishing.
I’ve had several white supremacists in my class, both reformed and current. As a mixed-race, black millennial from New York City, I never had to share a space with someone who overtly believes black people are inferior. Those were the stories I would hear from the generations before mine, and here I was experiencing it at a county jail in the small town of Ukiah. It was so much different than what I would have pictured. There wasn’t fighting, yelling, or name-calling. Instead, there was an honest sharing of beliefs and experiences, and all parties were willing to listen and receive one another. There was no agenda, no attempts to be right or change one another’s minds. We were able to find points of genuine connection without that. Turns out that agreement and endorsement are not prerequisites for healthy relating. I didn’t have to hate white people for having a prejudice towards me. In fact, it was more fulfilling to do the opposite and seek resonance to replace potentially discordant relationships.
Incredible things happened in that Art of Soulmaking class. I watched the lights go on in people’s eyes as they remembered themselves. I saw humanity at its ugliest transform into beauty and love. I learned to accept my own humanity in that classroom. It was a truly transformative experience for all involved.
So why is this program no longer being taught at Mendocino County Jail? Cancel culture is a vicious cycle.
OneTaste, an organization affiliated with Unconditional Freedom, was the subject of a major media hit piece back in 2018. OneTaste’s mission was to restore feminine power to its rightful place in the world through the partnered consciousness practice called Orgasmic Meditation (OM). OneTaste was a woman-owned-and-operated company that empowered women through liberating female sexuality. It was very successful in that mission until a media takedown was launched against us.
I’m a proud student and teacher of OneTaste philosophy, and I have been an OM practitioner for almost a decade. I personally experienced the benefits of OM well before it became scientifically validated through several studies that have linked the practice of OM to specific health outcomes — including reduced cognitive decline in older people, decreases in trauma response, and increased access to mystical states.
Anything that disrupts the status quo lives with a target on its back. Especially when it comes to women, freedom, and sexual expression. OneTaste was this crazy place where women were encouraged to explore our bodies and interior world, to have a voice and express ourselves, to find out the depths of who each of us are, and then use our power to create the type of world we want to live in. Alas, it seems, that is a bridge too far for the current state of our culture.
Since 2018, I have grown used to being canceled by a society suffocating from misinformation and fear. What’s different about this newest cancellation at the Mendocino County Jail is that we were used to takedown another institution. Ironically, most of our negative media is written by women, the very people we have worked to empower.
#MeToo Brute? — Why do women attempt to takedown female-led organizations? KZYX radio reporters Stacey Sheldon and Sarah Reith clearly set out to do a hit piece of Unconditional Freedom and its programs at the Mendocino County Jail. Sheldon came in saying she wanted to do a story about the Restorative Justice Program at the jail and yet, in her reporting there was little mention of the program or its positive impact over the last two years.
We’ve been down that road before. In 2018, during the height of the #MeToo movement, Bloomberg business reporter Ellen Huet contacted OneTaste. She ostensibly wanted to write a positive feature about one of the fastest-growing female-led women’s empowerment companies. We were more than happy to welcome her in and give her access to the entire organization and staff. But what Huet eventually published was a tabloid-worthy tale full of clickbait and salacious allegations void of any journalistic standards. She relied upon accounts of these allegations from people who weren’t there at the time and failed to back them up with any evidence beyond hearsay. We provided Huet with dozens of people who were happy to go on record about their experiences with OneTaste and OM. She chose instead to feature a small selection of disgruntled clients and staffers who provided her with distorted accounts loosely based on actual events.
By the time Sarah Reith came sniffing around asking questions about OneTaste and the Bloomberg piece published nearly four years earlier, we were rightly suspicious of her motives and potential bias. She did not disappoint in that regard. In fact, Reith continued in the Huet tradition of muckraking journalism in her radio program on October 5, 2022, and subsequently in a blog post, in which she basically rehashed the allegations brought by the Bloomberg piece and pointed out with a conspiratorial insinuation that Unconditional Freedom was related to OneTaste. This is not a connection I or anyone else in the Unconditional Freedom staff sought to hide. So, great sleuthing Sarah, as the link to Unconditional Freedom’s website is printed on the front page of OneTaste’s website.
But what Reith also did was assert that OneTaste was somehow using Unconditional Freedom to market its services. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s worth noting that Reith has a series of salacious stories about the Ukiah Police Department and government activity in general. It seems to me that rather than writing a factual piece about the jail’s Restorative Justice Program working with Unconditional Freedom to improve the quality of living for a vulnerable population, they stuck to their usual grind of discrediting an institution they appear to disapprove of. While I can’t speak to the validity of Reith’s previously written articles, I can say that her exposé on Unconditional Freedom is based on false allegations that she dug up from old, libelous articles. Aside from following an obvious trail of connection between OneTaste and Unconditional Freedom, there was no original reporting contained in her piece.
I know I studied journalism over a decade ago during my undergraduate years, but I thought fact-checking was still required today. And yet, none of these reporters bothered to do that here.
The only true part of Sheldon and Reith’s story is that former OneTaste employees were later staffed by Unconditional Freedom, including myself. My work with Unconditional Freedom had nothing to do with teaching OM, that is not our nonprofit mission. Unconditional Freedom’s mission is to rewild the earth and rehumanize the canceled members of society: the marginalized, the cast out, the prison residents, and the wild ones. Once dignity is reclaimed, we believe people naturally find the desire to contribute their unique gifts to society.
OneTaste seeks to restore the feminine to a place of dignity and power, while Unconditional Freedom seeks to do the same with marginalized groups. What if the disproportionate number of marginalized people who live in these institutions, the impoverished, people of color and the poorly educated, were to become integral to the healing of the world, become our most valuable resources? This would change the game in how we approach race, class, and our human understanding of what is truly intelligent. That’s the overlap, that’s why I’ve felt aligned with the missions for each of the above-mentioned organizations.
Is it such a stretch to believe that the very group of people who survived their own media takedown for having a fresh vision for the world are now working to help other populations who have been repeatedly canceled since the beginning of time? This is only proof that we walk our talk; we’ve found ways to restore our own sense of dignity and now part of our contribution is offering that same map to others who would benefit. We turned our own pain into purpose, a pain that officials at Mendocino County Jail already knew about.
As I’ve made clear, this is not the first time a reporter has come after us with the hopes of using our perceived notoriety to make a name for themselves. In 2021 a young reporter also re-hashed old allegations and projected them onto our nonprofit work, putting our programs at several facilities in jeopardy. Mendocino County Jail officials investigated our history then and found no cause for concern. They were not concerned because OM was not being taught in any of our Unconditional Freedom programming. So, we continued building out the Prison Monastery there. But once a larger, more renowned, local publication started spreading the same old story, things became political, and the jail’s stance took a drastic turn. Our Prison Monastery, including gardening and Art of Soulmaking courses, were quickly canceled at the jail.
Restorative Justice Program Manager Kate Feigin stayed true to her original stance, that our nonprofit mission is aligned with that of the Restorative Justice Program and our work with the incarcerated speaks for itself.
Unconditional Freedom has made significant positive contributions to Ukiah and surrounding communities, and we’ve tracked measurable positive effects for the jail population that we serve. Results reported by prison residents who have completed the Art of Soulmaking program indicate that stress decreased by 26%, anger decreased by 20%, optimism increased by 14%, depression decreased by 26%, and gratitude increased by 14%.
In addition, Unconditional Freedom has:
• Established the first garden program in ten years at MCJ for incarcerated women and expanded the garden program for incarcerated men
• Established the first garden program for the Juvenile Hall detention center residents
• Saved Mendocino County taxpayers roughly $20,000 dollars in the form of nutritious, organic garden produce yield since 2020
• Offered twice-weekly classes in meditation and yoga
• Created a program called Guards to Guardian providing mentorship and support
for correctional officers
• Offered Monthly Free Food meals using organic ingredients professionally
prepared for MCJ staff and officers
• Provided a $20,000 chicken coop plus week-long construction project and training
for jail residents
• Constructed beehives to kick-start the apiary training program taught by the
Mendocino County sheriff on a weekly basis
It’s been rough to have the last two years of our work at Mendocino County Jail reduced to a re-hashed hit piece. It’s heartbreaking to read the comments from people outraged about false allegations rather than seeing people celebrate the progressive changes being made in our community. It stings to see my good friend and mentor, Kate Feigin, being ridiculed for this partnership rather than rewarded for the tremendous success of her Restorative Justice Program at the jail. But what hurts the most is knowing that the men and women I show up for every week are likely wondering where I am and why I stopped coming. My hope is they can feel my heart is still there with them.
We’ve lost a great partnership, and with a heavy heart we’ll keep moving forward. Continuing to create the world we want to live in is lonely but necessary work. Our mission lives on and the next chapter begins.