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After 18 years in prison, man helps former incarcerated men, women get second chances

Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart, a reentry coordinator for Planting Justice believes that where you start in life should never determine where you end up.
Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart shares his journey after being incarcerated at the age of 15 to becoming a mentor to men and women upon their release from prison.
Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart shares his journey after being incarcerated at the age of 15 to becoming a mentor to men and women upon their release from prison.TODAY
/ Source: TODAY

Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart spent much of his teens and early 20s behind bars. But after almost losing his life in prison, the Oakland, California, native has now made it his life's mission to help other formerly incarcerated individuals integrate back into society.

While California’s prison population has been declining since 2006, the state's recidivism rate has stayed steady — it’s a statistic Lockheart is actively working to bring down. Now, at 42 years old, Lockheart works as a reentry coordinator for Planting Justice, a non-profit organization benefiting local communities and formerly incarcerated citizens.

Planting Justice aims to tackle California's high recidivism rates by offering job opportunities to those formerly incarcerated to work at one of its several urban farms in Oakland. They teach inmates how to professionally landscape and garden and empower communities to grow their own healthy food and work with local high schools in the Bay Area to teach food justice curriculum.

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What people don't understand about the system is that there is a core resilient group of people, thousands to be precise, who want to get out and hopefully have an impact, just like me."

Lockheart, who was released in January from San Quentin State Prison, believes that where you start in life should never determine where you end up.

"I have so much empathy and sadness for the younger version of me ... I had no way of knowing that life could be better," Lockheart told TODAY.

Beginning at age 15, Lockheart was in and out of prison, ultimately receiving an 18 year sentence for armed robbery.

It wasn't till he was stabbed during a gang riot that Lockheart realized he needed a purpose — something to live for.

Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart thought that being incarcerated at that age of 15 was just a part of life.TODAY

"I had been stabbed twice and I remember looking out a window and thinking to myself, 'If I were to die today or die tomorrow, I don't want to die for something I didn't believe in,'" Lockheart told TODAY.

Lockheart's life also changed when he met John "Yahya" Johnson, another inmate at Folsom. Yahya ended up taking Lockhart under his wing and mentoring him because he was a "real inquisitive and curious individual."

"Watching him grow and mature as a man inside and then transition outside has been tremendously positive,” Yahya said.

While at Folsom State Prison, Yahya was a mentor for younger incarcerated men because elders did the same for him. Lockheart believes he wouldn't be where he is today if Yayha hadn't intervened in his life.TODAY

For Lockheart, Yahya was a “mentor” who protected him “mentally" and is the reason he is the man he is today. It was also Yahya who helped Lockheart learn how to become a mentor, a skill which later became a calling for him.

“Yahya taught me patience and he taught me that I was worth more than the way I was living and he taught me to look out ahead of myself,” Lockheart said. “He told me to always, in prison slang we say investigate, always look into stuff, don’t take things at face value, gather as much information as you can.”

During his time at California Men’s Colony, Lockheart applied to be a caregiver for incarcerated men with dementia and Alzheimer's through The Gold Coats Program. Through the program, able-bodied inmates are assigned up to five patients and help them with everyday tasks such as getting dressed, bathing and walking them to medical appointments.

"It gave me the opportunity to not worry about myself and to actually care for somebody else,” Lockheart told TODAY about the experience.

In 2012, Lockheart was transferred to San Quentin State Prison where he found a new way to help others — by becoming a San Quentin firefighter. At first, he wanted to be a firefighter for the perks, which included his own cell and better food. But now Lockheart calls the experience "one of the most impactful things" he's ever done and credits the program with teaching him how to save lives.

Lockheart said being a firefighter in San Quentin gave him a second chance and he credits it as being was one of the most impactful things he's ever done.TODAY

"During my time as a firefighter I did CPR on over 50 different individuals who were all my peers," Lockhart said. "To be doing CPR on somebody that I potentially knew or saw or that was in the same condition as me gave me a sense of purpose."

It wasn't till 2013 that Lockheart first became involved with Planting Justice due to his enrollment with the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin. While he was driving one of the fire engines, he saw Haleh Zandi and Gavin Raders, the Planting Justice founders and asked about any job opportunities upon his release.

A year before he was up for parole, Lockheart received a letter from Planting Justice stating he could apply for a job at the nursery once he was released.

"I have so much empathy and sadness for the younger version of me ... I had no way of knowing that life could be better,"

Planting Justice was founded in 2009 and began hiring parolees through the Insight Garden Program at San Quentin State Prison in 2013. In an effort to end recidivism in the prison system, the program teaches inmates how to professionally landscape and garden. They tend to both the "inner" and "outer" gardener, through mentorship, meditation and echo-therapy. With the training received through the Insight Garden Program, parolees can apply to be a reentry hire at Planting Justice.

To date, Planting Justice has hired 18 parolees in five years and 75% of it staff has served time. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the process of reentry is “hindered” by a lack of opportunities for offenders to find a means to live before their release from prison.

As the reentry coordinator, Lockheart helps reentry hires get necessary resources like transportation stipends, food, clothes and jobs. He also offers emotional support by facilitating conversations with other reentry hires about their transition back into society.

Planting Justice is working to tackle recidivism rates in California by providing jobs formerly incarcerated people. 75% of its staff has served time. Rasheed Stanley-Lockheart works with those who are just re-entering society. TODAY

“This is what I hear every time we sit in the circle, ‘You know, without this group, I don't know what I would do,’” Lockheart told TODAY.

Since joining Planting Justice full time, Lockheart said his commitment to helping others has truly become a commitment to reversing California’s recidivism rates. And it starts with giving people employment once they get out.

"What people don't understand about the system is that there is a core resilient group of people, thousands to be precise, who want to get out and hopefully have an impact, just like me."