I used to be a vegetable smuggler. It’s not how I got to prison, but it’s what I did once I was there.
I wasn’t alone. The men with whom I worked in the garden on “China Hill” at California’s Folsom Prison were there with me, every day, waiting in line to get back into the prison building and hoping the guards wouldn’t discover the vegetable contraband they had secreted away in their clothing.
In my left boot, slightly smashed and carefully wrapped in a sandwich bag, was a single jalapeno pepper. In my right, bundled tightly and also wrapped, were a couple dozen shoots of green onions.
I didn’t always know what others took with them. Some probably had tomatoes, sliced, and at least one man had watermelon. Not a whole watermelon, but a thin slice, almost deli thin. Anything bulkier would’ve been easily recognizable by the guards, who were patting us down, one by one, as we made our way through the gate into Folsom’s inner compound.
Officially, we were landscapers. There were about 20 of us, and we had been assigned to the landscaping crew atop the grassy knoll within the prison’s walls known as China Hill, spending our weekdays in what felt to us prisoners like the wilderness.
One doesn’t usually see hills within prison walls. Prisons are generally built on flat ground, which allows the surrounding gun towers to have an open line of sight on the perimeter.
But we had a hill, and a job on it, and a single guard, also our supervisor, who expected us to work only a couple of hours per day, after which he permitted us to while away the rest of our time as we saw fit.
We weren’t actually allowed to garden, but that didn’t stop us from doing it. The unspoken agreement between the guard and us men was that we would keep China Hill from becoming an overgrown jungle, and in return he would pretend he didn’t see any of our vegetables growing there. It was motivation to keep us working.
The vegetables we grew were the kinds that never would have made their way into the chow hall: We had squash, peas, chili peppers, bell peppers, watermelon, green onions, tomatoes.
China Hill was divided into sectors, just like the prison yard. Black guys had the land in one spot, the Southsiders (a Mexican gang) in another, the White Boys near the Southsiders and the “Others” near the Blacks. Despite the determined segregation, it was peaceful. If the Southsiders wanted to eat some peppers with their burritos, they could trade a watermelon to the Others.
The guys on the yard would get jealous when we’d tell them how we’d eaten watermelon that day. Many of them hadn’t even tasted a watermelon, or a bell pepper, or a squash, in decades. We knew we had something special, but there was no way it could be shared with the rest of the population. The food we grew was strictly prohibited on the inside—and at first, at the end of each work day, we were stripped naked every time on the way back into the cellblock in order to ensure that it remained that way.
There was another aspect of working on China Hill that wasn’t usually shared with the men on the yard, but which made it one of the best jobs in Folsom: It offered the potential, at least, for solitude. The lack of noise—that was the feeling of belonging to the Earth again, and having a small part of it belong to me, and to us.
My plot was modest, and I dug small irrigation trenches all about it to make watering easy. When I would get up there in the morning, I’d turn the water on at the spigot and let it fill the trenches slowly as I went to work. When I finished a few hours later, I’d bring my lunch down to my plot, sit on the bare earth, and watch the plants grow. I’d watch the bees go from one orange squash blossom to another, and I’d watch hornets pick up little balls of mud from the edges of the trenches and carry them off to their homes. I’d pinch any dead leaves off my plants and place my watermelons and squash on beds of rocks to keep their undersides from rotting.
From the bare patch of dirt in my garden, I could look over the wall to the south and see the free world outside. I could look over the tall, chain-link fence on the northern perimeter and see the river and the granite cliffs it had carved out over many millennia. I could feel the wind, and place my hands in the mud. From China Hill I could see the horizon, something very few prisoners ever get to see.
Once I left China Hill for the day, I had to re-enter the world below me. I had to return to the auditory hell that was the cellblock and the yard, and the spatial hell that was my cell.
One day, an announcement was made to the men of China Hill. The gate that we normally passed through in order to get to and from work was going to be undergoing construction, and we’d be forced to use a different one. Initially, this didn’t seem like a big deal, but we realized what it meant once we started to use the detour.
They stopped strip-searching us—we just received a pat-down.
Suddenly, the bell peppers began making their way into the cuisines of Folsom’s cells. The fresh jalapenos were included in the homemade burritos. Lifers had a watermelon for the first time in decades and, for many of them, the last time in their lives. My cellie and I watched “Prison Break” on TV and snacked on fresh peas. One cell even had a small pumpkin in it, sitting atop a bookshelf.
We were never able to smuggle in enough vegetables for entire meals—just morsels, just momentary freshness in our stale world. But we smuggled in memories when we smuggled in those tastes: memories of freedom.
Illustration by Dola Sun