My Journey to Veganism by Paul Cortez

Originally written in longhand by Paul in prison and sent to me as a pdf file - Will

By Paul Cortez


In March of 2008, just several days why of my 28th birthday, I made the life-long choice to become Vegan. Veganism, or the rejection of consuming and using animal products of every kind, is more than just a diet or lifestyle; I consider being Vegan a moral and political commitment to the end of animal and human exploitation everywhere.

I am still a “newborn” in this way of life, and do not consider myself an expert by any means; though, I am learning more and understanding more everyday. To me, being the “perfect” Vegan not only takes a constant awareness of all that we consume, wear, and use, but it extends to how we as a people think about and treat every living and sentient (capable of feeling and suffering) being.

The fundamental principles of Veganism, as I understand it, are those taught by the great religious and social leaders of all times—from Buddha, to Christ, to Gandhi, to Martin Luther King, Jr., Veganism is the foundation of non-violence, compassion, morality, and the end of all forms of exploitation, beginning with animals, and extending toward all sentient being regardless of species, class, race, sex, religion or culture.

Once I was arrested for murder, despite my innocence, I was immediately stripped of all my rights as a member of the moral and social community. Our rights are our only legal protection of our most basic personal interests such as life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Once my right to liberty was unjustly taken from me, as a prisoner, the value of my freedom to the moral and social community was rendered null and void. As a result, if other people think that I should stay imprisoned for no other reason than that my incarceration would benefit them or cause them some twisted form of pleasure, I have no right to liberty that would protect me from such exploitation. Indeed many people, parties, and corporations have benefited from my unjust incarceration, including Detective Getz, District Attorney Casanare, Judge Berkman, The N.Y. Post, The Daily News, CBS’s 48 Hours, Fox News Corp., and others, by perpetuating the possibility of my guilt, even before I was arrested or tried.

Once a prisoner passes from the tragic stage of being held captive by county jails as a citizen with rights “temporarily suspended,” to the status of being a convicted prisoner with rights altogether revoked indefinitely (or until the prison term and any further probation has ended), that convicted prisoner is then considered “state property.” His or her name is no longer their identifying factor within the prison system; instead the prisoner is tagged with a number and a cell location. The “property” owner becomes the State, who then loans out the use of that human commodity to the superintendents of various prisons throughout the State. The overseers are the lieutenants, captains, sergeants and officers who then “cultivate the property” for maximum use for the State.

After a prisoner is admitted to any certain prison, he or she goes through a mandatory orientation program that dictates the rules and regulations of that facility. Very shortly after, the prisoner is required to meet with the Program Committee in order to put that prisoner to good use. If the prisoner is of little use to the facility’s industries, then a prisoner can decide to take certain “educational” or trade-learning programs so that the prisoner can be put to use eventually in a labor for the facility’s interests. If a conscientious prisoner refuses to work or be programmed, he or she is “keeplocked” or revoked general population privileges such as outdoor recreation or food-buy commissary days or the ability to make outside phone calls. Prisoners are given 12 to 50 cents an hour, depending upon the job and the amount of time working at a particular job. By giving this “wage” and calling them “workers,” the State is able to legally mask what these prisoners really are—slaves working in the modern day slave trade.

Because of its prisoners, prison facilities are completely self-sufficient. Tax dollars fund the state to provide meager amounts of poor quality “food” (cooked and served by prisoners) that is animal based, as well as sub par medical healthcare whose main tasks is to supply and distribute pill and liquid medications to many of the prison population for maladies ranging from tuberculosis, hepatitis, staff infections, depression, insomnia, to psychotic behavior and more.

The prison system’s pseudo name is ‘The Department of Corrections.’ D.O.C. acts under the guise of being a rehabilitative system that promotes educational growth and trade learning opportunities for the prisoner in order to allow him or her to assimilate these institutionally acquired “skills” back into society upon release. However, the constant demoralization, exploitation and abuse from correctional officers, state teachers and facility administration do not allow the prisoner to be a well-adjusted, law-abiding citizen when their prison term is up.

In my experience and communication with prisoners within the system, the talk of their “rap sheets,” or previous prison sentences, is discussed with the normalcy of talking about the color of a shirt worn the other day. Many prisoners are so beaten down, bitter or jaded by the time their prison term is over, they hate society and would rather choose a life of crime. Others turn to crime again because of the near impossibility of attaining a decent job with a criminal record. Others, still, feel that they need to make up for “lost time” and choose to return to crime in order to quickly advance to the same financial status as their peers.

When I was free, I never really thought about how hard it is for a prisoner to return to society. No one thinks about rehabilitating prisoners, but instead, people often think of just punishing them for their crimes. I feel that this type of apathetic and uncompassionate thinking has gotten us to where we as a nation are today—the nation with the highest incarceration percentage of males (1 out of very 100), and the highest criminal repeat offender rate in the world.

Because prisoners are regarded as state commodities and not as persons with basic human rights, correction in the form of punishment, abuse and exploitation, as opposed to rehabilitation and empowerment, is D.O.C.’s sole function. I myself have personally witnessed a correctional officer about 5’10”, 225 pounds beat a 5’4”, 125 pound Asian prisoner to a bloody pulp for not cleaning up the kitchen area quick enough. I have seen a gang of officers beat a prisoner unconscious even though his hands were cuffed behind his back, for cursing at a Sergeant. I have viewed a prisoner beaten and maced by a group of officers while he was naked, because he didn’t want to bend over and spread his butt cheeks a second time for the frisk officer known by us prisoners to have a lingering eye.

But more often than not, these cases of abuse, though justified by the administration with no repercussions toward the officers involved, are frowned upon. An injured prisoner is a useless prisoner; though these abuses serve as intimidation tactics to thwart dissent or opposition. Nevertheless, it is more common that an officer will set a prisoner up. Either the officer will plant contraband (weapons, drugs or other banned items) in his target prisoner’s person or cell occupation, or the officer will influence another prisoner to attack his target. But most often a correctional officer will fabricate some sort of infraction of institutional rules against the prisoner which will result in the prisoner being “keeplocked” or packed up and shipped to “the box” or “the hole” in order to break his spirit and ensure complete obedience, fear and servitude.

I myself have been victim of the abuse by officers. Because the media extensively covered my case, many officers within the prison system had claimed to know all about me and my case. As a result, I have experienced more derogatory and demeaning language, senseless abuse and general hatred than usual from various officers. Just recently, an officer who had previously attempted to fabricate infractions against me and have me shipped to the box several times before, was ultimately successful. The Superintendent and Deputy of Security allowed this officer’s false accusations to land me in the box for 60 days, despite the fact that several eye witnesses—who were civilians—verbally testified against this officer’s ticket, after further investigation.

I cannot accurately relate the intensity of psychological suffering, the physical distress that the box inflicted on me. Just image that you are locked behind four impenetrable walls (8’x6”) and one gate that is reinforced with heavy-duty chicken wire and Plexiglas 24/7 with only a metal cot (5’x10”), 1-1/2” thick mattress, a filthy toilet and sink, and ten books. I was afforded three showers a week that were timed to be no more than five minutes. I was given three meals a day. I eventually opted for the alternative meal plan that is basically an inadequate vegetarian diet that often had meals consisting solely of four slices of cheese, a hot dog bun, and a quarter cup of applesauce. The cells were not regularly heated, and I spent a week straight once able to see my breath. I was allowed one visit a week, and if the C.O.’s felt like it, I was allowed to go out to an hour of “recreation”—which meant being escorted to a series of seven cages no bigger than two cells each and individually locked in for an hour on the facility’s roof, exposed to the elements through the gated ceiling. In a 60-day period, I was allowed out to recreation three times. If I was let out of the box for any of the previously mentioned reasons, I was rear hand-cuffed through a slot in the gate, then the cell box door was opened. I was instructed to slowly back out, then I was escorted by two or more officers to whatever destination. I only spent 60 days in this isolation, but others have been sentenced to years, enduring such conditions.

At first, I experienced a lot of anxiety, followed by feelings of claustrophobia, then panic attacks. There would be periods of random crying which I would stifle in the sheets so no one would hear me and think that I was crazy; periods of extreme depression where I tried to sleep the day away were common; and every so often I would become manic and intensely work out for two and a half hours until exhaustion. I had never before experienced such mental distress.

Around half way through this box period, I had visibly lost a lot of weight. A C.O. allowed me to weigh myself en route to a visit one week and I was 145 pounds. On my 5’8” frame—perhaps this weight doesn’t seem so bad—but the fact that I had lost 15 pounds in such a rapid and unhealthy way affected me. Because the State food was often so poor and meager, I was regularly cold and weak. To cope with this physical stress, I returned very deeply back into my hatha yoga practice as well as a physical program that I constructed for a friend. I also deepened my meditation practice, sometimes meditating for about two hours straight in the seated half-lotus position.

One day during a meditation period, I began to ponder how our society could allow such inhumane treatment of people. My mind then started focusing on a conversation that I once had with my Vegan friend on a visit in the fall of 2007.

She told me of the inhumane treatment of animals in our world. The farm-raised animals who we exploit and use for clothing, products, product testing, amusement, and food have no rights whatsoever. These harmless and defenseless animals are annually slaughtered in the tens of billions! The conditions of their imprisonment before they are slaughtered, and while they are being exploited for their secretions and unborn is beyond atrocious. They are held captive in cages, pens and stalls which don’t even allow these animals to turn around. They live steeped in their own feces, as well as the feces of others under poorly ventilated and temperature regulated conditions. Infection and disease among the farm animal population is not uncommon. These beings are raped by humans through forever synthetic procreation with tubes to extract semen and inseminate females. The amount of hormones and antibiotics pumped into their blood stream produces abnormal growth and “productivity” rates.

These animals that are labeled “cage-free,” “free-range,” “organic,” “humanely” or “compassionately” treated, often suffer just as much or more than those who are tortured traditionally. I have seen pictures of “free-range” chickens, and have read animal rights activists’ articles about them, and though they are not living in battery cages, it looks as if they were on the 4-train at rush hour in Times Square! They are crammed together in such a way that “humane” or “compassionate” could be as far from the truth as to how they are truly treated.

This not-so-new trend of animal welfarist individuals and corporations (as opposed to animal rights activists) promoting only the appearance of marginally better conditions (before the animals are ultimately slaughtered) and then tagging the words “compassionate” or “humane” to those products, is absolutely disgusting.

The people who buy these “free-range,” “organic,” or “humanely/compassionately” treated animal products, thinking that they are making a moral choice, are severely deluded.

If someone imprisoned your son or daughter, then raped them, then hooked up pumps to their breast or genitals to extract their secretions over a period of a quarter of their natural lifespan, then stunned them with a heart-stopping electric gun, and chopped their heads off, but gave them an inch more space in their cage, would you call it compassionate or humane? Would you attach the word “free” to them? Would you be able to consume their flesh and call it a moral choice?

One of the reasons that the majority of us do not know the standards and conditions of our animal family is because these animals have no rights to protect their life, liberty or pursuit of happiness. Also, large animal product organizations and corporations see it not in their best financial interests to inform the public of the amount of torture, pain and suffering that goes into each bite of that porter house steak or pork chop or fried chicken or fish fillet or omelet or scoop of ice cream or glass of milk.

As my thoughts furthered along this line of thinking, I realized that there is no fundamental difference between animals and any part of the human race. Animals are sentient beings just like us. As animal rights activist Gary Francione has stated, “Sentience is a means to the end of continued existence; sentience is a characteristic that has evolved in certain beings a mechanism to facilitate continued existence…[Sentience is] the ability to feel pain.”

But most of us deny animals’ similar nature to our own. Instead, a majority of people feel we have superiority over animals that make it okay for us to kill and eat them. Some mistakenly quote the Bible to support their speciesist mentality that God gave men animals and plants to eat. But in my Bible, the verse that refers to this is Genesis 1:24-30: “[2.9] God also said, ‘See, I give you every seed-bearing plant all over the earth and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit on it to be your food, [30] and to all the animals of the land, all the birds of the air, all the living creatures that crawl on the ground, I give all the green plants for food.’ And so it happened.”

Nowhere does it state that the God of Genesis intended humans to eat animals. Instead, it clearly states that plants and fruits are our food—this is the Vegan diet.

I also realized that it is because we treat all animals (so utterly defenseless against our brutality) as objects, as property, as commodities used for nothing more than our perverse pleasure, vanity and financial gain—it is because of all this that we are unable to treat all of our fellow human family members with compassion and respect regardless of their class, race, sex, religion or culture.

I then began to reflect upon the baby calf used as veal. From birth, this bay is taken away and separated from his mother and put into a lightless pod or cage that restricts all movement. He is malnourished as well, which along with the lack of mobility forces his muscles to remain lean and tender—the sickly appetizing aspect of “gourmet” veal.

Then at four to six months, the baby calf is murdered. He never knows sunlight. He is a stranger to contact with his own kind. He has never felt the dew of soft earth in the morning before grazing in a pasture. The baby calf has only experienced pain and torture of the most heartless kind, and then he is slaughtered.

Something like this never before touched my heart. It was a moment of pure empathy, and I began to sob uncontrollably. All the pain and suffering that has been building up within me for the past several years since I lost of my dearest friend at the hands of a brutal killer, and then was wrongfully charged and convicted of that crime, was trapped into and fractionally released by that baby calf. I know I have not experienced even a tenth of what the average farm animal experiences daily, but for a moment I could understand and identify with that feeling of abandonment, isolation, powerlessness and dread.

After that experience, I realized that I could no longer consume or use animals or animal products. I vowed to become Vegan for the rest of my life. However, because of my weight loss and malnourishment, I couldn’t muster up the courage to face nearly 21 days left of box time with even less food, and the impact it might have on my health. Therefore, I decided to become vegetarian in the way that I believe vegetarianism should be used—as a transition to becoming Vegan. Being vegetarian without moving toward veganism is a disingenuous commitment to the abolition of all animal suffering, exploitation, rape and slaughter. As soon as I left the box, I became Vegan and continue to understand and practice more fully its ideals.

To me, becoming vegan is the first and most crucial step in the peace and equal rights movement. If we cannot honor the lives of peaceful, defenseless sentient beings by not enslaving them and treating them as property or commodities, then how can we honor the lives of human beings who are capable of such horrific injustices, senseless violence, corruption and heartlessness?

Being Vegan—committing to the non-exploitation and right to life for all animals—eventually leads the individual to abolish in her or himself the social diseases of classism, racism, sexism, religionism and culturalism. The individual is society. Therefore, the more individuals who became Vegan, the larger the society we will have of people consciously caring to exist by the only true moral standard—respecting the lives of all diversities of sentient beings everywhere by eliminating our own contributions to their suffering and death. For me, being Vegan is the most powerful choice that any individual—free or otherwise—could make toward the benefit, peace and well being of our earth and all her inhabitants. Truly, being Vegan has empowered me in this most powerless of situations.

I once mistakenly thought of veganism as a bourgeois, elitist dietary lifestyle for those trying to be chic. But there is nothing bourgeois, elitist or chic about what I’m doing here in prison, or veganism in general. On the contrary, it is the definition of elitist to eat the dead flesh from a species you claim dominance over for your own convenience and pleasure.

Another mistaken idea of being Vegan is that only the rich can support such a diet. But quite oppositely, I am able to buy more beans, rice and vegetables in this prison facility due to the money I save from not buying meat from the prison commissary. Also, in free supermarkets, you can buy T.S.P. (Textured Soy Protein, a meat substitute) for under $2 for a five-serving bag!

The last myth of being Vegan that I’ve found to be completely false is that my health would suffer from not eating meat or animal products. If I had to rely on state food served in the mess hall, I would be emaciated and would most likely be hospitalized. It is very unfortunate that the state does not honor the Vegan diet; but it only validates a system built for the enslavement, exploitation, abuse and demoralization of its population that would not support a way of life that seeks to abolish its root principles.

Fortunately, I am able to buy non-animal products at commissary, and once in a while I receive a package from my vegan friend, even though she hardly has the money to support herself. There is a great vegan book about acquiring all the essential (and non-essential) vitamins and minerals to support the vegan diet called ‘Becoming Vegan’ by Brenda Davis, R.D. and Vesanto Melina, M.S., R.D.

Since becoming vegan, I have found an inner shift within me that makes me feel like my life has meaning even though I am a prisoner.

As Gary Francione has said, “Veganism is the one thing that each of us can do right now. Veganism is not merely a matter of diet; it is a moral and political commitment to the abolition of animal exploitation on the individual level.”

We each can make the commitment right now to stop eating meat of all kinds, as well as eggs, dairy and honey; thus being part of the healing solution for the environment and society.

The best way is to start by educating yourself on being vegan, and learning about the origins of your current food choices and product choices? We all have the ability to rise up above apathy, habitat and social conditioning.

Paul Cortez

Paul Cortez was arrested, charged, and is now imprisoned for a murder he had absolutely nothing to do with, he claims. If anyone would like to be in touch with him, and would like to write him a letter of support or encouragement, he would greatly appreciate it. There is more information on a website that has been set up to help him:

This is his address:

Paul Cortez
Auburn Correctional Facility
PO Box 618
Cell D-2-45
Auburn, NY 13024 

Back to articles