“Foster Care” by David S.
I was in and out of foster care and juvenile since an early age. Confused and scared away from home I was locked in a cage. I was raised by the State. That’s why I have all of these tattoos on my leg. They’re my stories. If I could find an angel I think I’d be okay. Even though all of this happened to me, I’m not bitter in any way.
“Time” by incarcerated student
I sat in my living room drinking JW DANT one-hundred proof bourbon. I sat with bottle in hand wondering: How in the hell did I arrive at such a miserable existence? My father drank most of his life and I hated it. I swore I’d never do it and yet I drank. Booze helped me ease the pain I held inside. I didn’t understand how the pain came to be only that it clung to my life. No wind blew because snow flakes fell straight down rocking back and forth as they floated to the ground. One had to be careful because a windless day made the likelihood of an ambush very real. In the yard, snow stuck in some places but melted in others leaving patches of white snow and green grass on the group. A perfect place to dig a punji-trap with its sharp-tipped stakes covered in poison, I surmised. Deep potholes in my paved, black-topped driveway filled with melted snow and quickly formed thin layers of ice around the edges, but I knew they hid landmines under the water. The sky had low-lying gray, dark slow-moving clouds. The sentries, naked trees, stood in my front yard with extended limbs ready to defend me against unseen enemy intruders. All in all, looking out my window, my day reeked of gloom. I felt pain inside as I looked at the couch where a black ski-mask, black gloves, and gun laid. On that wintery day, a man died. A trial followed and I went to prison for life. Time heals most things – they say – but I’m not convinced of it because an innocent man still lost his life and that cannot be given back. Later, the Veterans Administration diagnosed me as suffering from full-blown, chronic Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from the War at the time of the crime. Even so, I will spend the rest of my life being sorry because I let humanity down.
“The Butterfly with the Broken Wing” by Corey “Shakur” Cathren
There was once a butterfly with a broken wing, who had to struggle just to stay alive in a world that sought to make its existence invalid. Null and void. All the other insects told him how useless he was, being that he had a broken wing. Some of the insects admired the beauty of his color, but they would never admit it in front of the rest of the insects. Instead they secretly envied his beauty and wished they were as beautiful as him. Some who knew the transition he made from an ugly caterpillar never missed an opportunity to remind him that they knew him “before” his transformation. They poked fun at his change and said that they liked him better when he was just another worm. But he ignored their comments and just continued to build up his strength so that one day his wing would heal, and he could fly away from all the negative energy of his present environment.
Coming out of the cocoon that gave birth to his new image, the other insects told him he wasn’t any better than them; which he knew but he also knew he was different. One day another butterfly was flying over him and as he looked up, he saw the grace and majestic manner in which it flew. He wished he could do the same. The other butterfly landed close enough to see him.
“Why aren’t you flying? Why are you down here walking around like the regular bugs?” the butterfly asked.
“Because my wing is broken so I can’t fly” he replied. The other butterfly examined his wings and laughed.
“Who told you that your wing was broken?” she asked.
“All of the bugs walking around down here, and I’ve heard it for so long that I believed it” he replied.
The other butterfly smiled, stopping for a moment before flying off.
“Your wing isn’t broken, but when you listen to other people’s value and opinion of you, especially those who don’t want to see you grow, you do yourself a grave disservice and you’ll never reach the heights of your true potential.”
At that point the butterfly who thought he had a broken wing flapped his wings and took flight for the first time. He saw the world and life from a new point of view, while leaving the negative insects and bugs who once made fun of him in the mud and dirt, where they belonged.
Dedicated to my granddaughter Khalani Assata.
“Social R/Evolution” by incarcerated student
How do we see ourselves? As times change so do the social norms in America. What seemed taboo, out of reach, or even unfathomable is now commonplace. With the revolution of the “brand” we have had an evolution of “self”.
Technology has propelled us into a time where everything matters, where our every move, word, action or lack thereof is scrutinized by others. Our need to belong, our need to adapt and our perception of how we are represented has caused us to change our sense of self.
Although our sense of self is who we believe we are, social acceptance has distorted this into who others believe we are. We try to look and act a certain way, dress a certain way, define our status, mimic people, take social or political stands, or try to belong to something so we can fit in or stand out in society. And though this has been going on since the dawn of time, today’s difference is that we have such a huge platform to show it off. Social media has allowed us to brand ourselves.
This evolution of brand has brought social comparisons to the forefront of people’s minds. By branding who we are and making upward or downward comparisons of others we protect our positive sense of self. Selling ourselves, representing what we do, like and even love builds our brand. We manipulate who we really are, our “self”, to be socially accepted.
Sigmund Freud introduced us with the psychodynamic theory of personality familiarizing us with the personality structures of the id, the ego, and the superego. Dare I say that with the changing, production, and invention of technology and the impact of media on our social identity we have created another personality structure. That over the past 120 years since Freud’s Psychodynamic Theory, we have subconsciously created another structure: veneer ego. To allow us to portray who we want to be to get a desired result from others which in turn will give us the positive or negative sense of self.
As our self-interest becomes more pious and social media more intrusive, I see the evolution of self through our sociometer become more requisite. This in turn revolutionizes the “brand” of who we are. Let’s face it, we want what we want, and that is to look a certain way so others can judge in the light that we want them to. Manipulating their perception of us so we can get the desired image. This is a type of self-serving bias that allows us to take selfies, post obnoxious comments on Facebook, become social bullies, trolls and to make our lives bigger and better, or worse and more dismal than others for likes, sponsors, love, or even a sense of belonging.
We brand ourselves to sell our brand, we lose who we truly are so we can be what people want us to be, so we can be comfortable with ourselves.
“Waking” by incarcerated student
I committed a crime, but serving a long sentence is another matter. This is not my world. I am a child of the wilderness. I miss the enveloping rhythm of nature – the smell of the flora, the sound of the fauna. Now, I’m assaulted by the cacophony of a hundred angry and oppressed souls. Instead of feeling the gentle night breeze across my skin, I am swallowed by the dank humidity of the seat and breath of my fellow prisoners. I can barely remember the taste of wild berries and garden vegetables-or even that of the game. It has been replaced by the flavor-less, texture-less mush. Even my dreams are corrupted by the weight of my time in prison. I am always inside the fences, trapped by my own mind – constantly at war with myself. When I do dream of being free, it is only an illusion. The dreams end with a feeling that I have to return to prison. Someday this nightmare will end. For now, I must persevere. Man was not meant to be caged. But the cage, with the right view, can become a launching pad. I will use it to do good.
“I Remember” by incarcerated student
I remember red and blue illumination dancing wildly off of tenements. I remember stale air, old tennis shoes and long forgotten Febreze. I remember Jefferson and Lincoln old and crisp. “Keep the change.” I remember metal smooth and cool air running in ushering along bickering pandemonium. I remember Timberland soles meeting city asphalt. I remember a herd of different faces, animated mixed emotions, a collective mumbled gumbo. I remember parting a sea of stale beer, cigarette smoke, friend fish, greens spearmint and in the air. I remember dark blue uniforms with “City Of” patches, squawking radios dispatching codes and destinations. I remember a mass of blue hovering over a spiritless form – Black Male, Mid-20s, 6’2, Identity Unknown. I remember warm tears stinging my cold face, a shattered heart, weak knees and a broken spirit. I remember 1,2,3,4,5,6 shells from a service revolver. I remember a black space, endless space. I remember footsteps 1,2,4,4,5. I remember silence. I remember tears. I remember life.
“Death” by Student-offender
Truly, anyone who has suffered a loss of all things has a good understanding of this quote by Charles Bukowski, but especially for anyone who has been incarcerated for a long periods of time – it means a lot. Not only has the offender died a few times, but he dies daily – to friends, to family, to the simple comforts of life. The cliché becomes reality: it’s the simple things in life that matter. A walk in the woods, listening to the thunder, sitting on a front porch – these things become as unreachable to us as life is to the dead. Of course, aren’t these the very elements of life? These simple pleasures remind us of who we are. When we lose these “simple things” we cease to be alive in any real sense of the word. In essence, we have died to the world and it to us.
I have died many times in my life. My soul no longer knows the pleasures of simply being alive. It has gotten to the point in my existence that the only way I can truly feel alive again is by having these simple pleasures restored. As Ebenezer Scrooge discovered, I have also learned not to take these things for granted anymore. Unfortunately, what it took the old miser to learn in one night, it has taken me three decades.
“Abandonment” by Clark
I recall standing alone in my saturated diaper screaming and crying with tears mixed with snot running down my face holding some tiny stuffed animal in the living room of my parents shotgun house because they are nowhere to be found. I don’t know how long I stood there or how long I was alone. This is not a memory of abandonment, but the realization that I was on my own, left to my own vices. I was abandoned at conception.
“When I Was Free” by Tony
My parents owned a three-bedroom house which was blue aluminum siding with white trim. We had a chain link fence around a big yard. Oh, how I hated cutting grass, pushing that lawn boy back and forth for hours it seemed. Dad also was a gardener so we had a lot across the street where he plied his green thumb. At the age of twenty-one manhood hadn’t come, nor wisdom found, lost in the sound of FM’s soul taking its toll on tender years hastily wasted. I was chasing weed, drowning in beers, neglecting the need to stop and grow up.
“Every time” by Clark
Every time I breath I’m thankful for my sobriety. I’ve been clean and sober for three years now. It has been a wild journey to get here. So let me take you back to the last day I used the most tricked out drug on the planet – Crystal Meth. See, the day was November 5, and it was warm and muggy. Out of the blue yonder my cell phone buzzes to life and the text message reads in bold letters: I’M ON. So my friend and I hatch a plan to rob this easy target that is screaming “come and get me” to the meth monster that lives in my big blue veins. The adrenaline is rushing in like a force of wind that has taken my very essence. I could taste the cold hard steal of the needle before I even go to the meeting place. This was my life before prison.
“Lost” by DeMarr
I got lost in life and now I am here. Am I a kid again? Why am I wearing a onesie? What is this food called “Frito Pie”? I have to take a shower these men standing beside me. It smells like a football player’s locker room after a rough game in the pouring rain. I guess I’ll go outside. Wait – the door is locked and this isn’t “come and go as you please.” It’s hot as hell so I guess I’ll take off my shirt. Then, I hear a yell. I can’t. I can’t take my shirt off. Then, as I look around at the men, and I realize we are in a cold, lonely place warehoused away from our families. We’re in prison.
“Remembrance” by Chris
It leans on my soul – my memory. Fried chicken and collard greens clung to the curtains of the house like the woman held on to the scars left by the man who long left. And in their wake, they left an invisible sight of smell…the kind that scratches at your mind like puke-colored carpet.
There’s a swinging lamp shade in the front room that feels like money that was left balled up in a jean pocket, long forgotten. There’s a pristine looking love seat that hides the piss stains on the springs – left by a little boy who was lost in a dream.
There are burnished bronze baby shoes with name plates and pictures – and the lemon pledge-scented wood reminds you that even the past must be wiped clean to be kept pure. There’s a tanginess to the beads hanging from the doorway that are only meant to be felt and heard.
And if the entrance of this brick castle in the ghetto could speak – each little creak of the wood floor under the rug would let you know that there’s love here.
“My Mind” by Dave
My mind never stops running. Constant traffic created by racing thoughts in a city with thousands of intersections. My thoughts move with a million different topics, opinions, and insane ideas. I am called “Krazy Dave” for a reason – a fate placed on me since birth. My intersecting thoughts are without stop signs or lights; traffic light thoughts are constantly on a collision course within this demented city. What am I to do? If I fight it, it only gets worse. Therefore, I chose to adapt and to live in a city of madness within my mind.
“Happy Birthday” by Phil
Can you believe that at age 29, I’ve never had a birthday party? Sucks, right? Imagine being seven or eight years old, going to your sister’s birthday party, or even a friend from the neighborhood and not having a party of your own. No cake or ice cream. I’ve never made a wish. I’ve never blown out candles. I don’t know what that feels like. I’ve always wondered: what do people wish for when they blow out the candles while they’re making their wish? I wish I had a birthday party.
“A Chat With A Spider” by Tony
Little spider dangling off the wall,
braving the brisk climate of fall;
looking so lonely, confused and lost,
so sluggish, so subdued by dawn’s frost;
keep a tight grip on your silky thread
lest you slip and fall and bruise your head
Oh! Down you go, spindling to the ground.
Please, do tell me: Just where are you bound?
“Off to find a quiet nook to hide
in a comfy place where I’ll abide.”
But winter is near. How will you fare?
“Oh, I’ll be safe, warm, and free of care.”
Well, little spider, I sure hope so.
May God bless you wherever you go.
“Heaven” by Daniel
Will there be gum in Heaven? Such a strange question. We often hear it asked whether there will be pets in Heaven…but gum?
If our bodies are truly made perfect again – everyone will possess real teeth and won’t be limited to only Trident anymore. Gumballs, Bazooka Joe, Double Bubble, Blow-Pops, and Hubba Bubba – here I come. To many children Heaven would be someplace like Disney World. But this can’t be Heaven only if you can get gum there. With all its perfection you won’t see it there. Characters will never break form, you will never see a dying plant, and you won’t be able to purchase one thing…gum. Clothes, hats, jewelry, food, and trinkets galore – but no sweet touch of gum. It was decided that stepping on it would ruin the experience, so it was banned.
But I digress. Gum could be seen as the perfect learning life experience. We start with a hard piece, break it down, form it and shape it into a thing of beauty or a glob of slop. For the beauty and the taste. If all dogs go to Heaven…I hope they bring gum.
“Tears” by DeMarr
At the age of 25, my reality is still hard to believe. When did my life flip upside down? I recall a day that still brings me to tears. It was one of life’s harsh reality checks. I remember the screams of my first-born son yelling, “Daddy, Daddy, and tapping random people on the shoulder pointing at me screaming, “That’s my Daddy,” like I was a winner of some reward. But, I wasn’t. My son’s face was full of surprise as if he were waiting to receive the greatest gift of his life. Inside his little mind, he didn’t realize this would be the last day his father would be around for the next four years of his life. I felt heavy, like bricks were sitting on my neck. My tears became a natural flow that I couldn’t resist. The judge smacked the gavel and the sound of wood reflected the sound of my heartbeat. I was escorted away from the life I created. It was the only life I knew. I miss my son.
“Perfectly Human” by Chris
I’m only human but that doesn’t diminish my perfection in the slightest. When I was born – I was perfectly loved – and nothing has changed since that day. So, let me be one of the first people to ever tell you that I’m perfect.
Born out of wedlock to an OG who already had two kids by two different Dads…perfect. Born a tone of brown that hasn’t always been held in the highest esteem when it comes to pulchritude…perfect. Big nose…perfect. Big lips…perfect. Gap tooth smile…perfect. The water beads off my skin like candy paint fresh from the carwash…perfect.
Tattoo of a lost soldier on my arm…perfect. Gun powder dust on my sleeves…perfect. A mug shot instead of a graduation picture…perfect. Blood on my hands forever…perfect. I woke up this morning…perfect. I have hope for tomorrow…perfect. I’ve got a story to tell…perfect.
Perfect…not in thought or in word or in deeds but in reality. Perfectly flawed and perfectly loved. And He is. So am I in this world.
“Break Free” by Branden
I have forgotten what true freedom actually feels like. I’ve been in confinement for so long it seems like nothing around me is totally free. Take for example the common sparrows that I see every day in my surroundings. These are caged birds that sing prison songs in plantation fields to condemned men with hopeless dreams. They don’t even seem to fly high, building their nests in razor wire confines, raising their baby birds on chow hall scraps of bread, cake and cornbread crumbs. Reduced to mere pets and convict wildlife, that depend on scattered givings that they’ve been trained to accept since their eggs hatched. I secretly harbor feelings toward these jailbirds for settling for the charity of what is given and not facing the world to fly free and hunt for their own, so I don’t feed them. I see them basking on littered scraps, and wonder do they think this is heaven? A bird. God’s gift supplied from somewhere higher than their scared wings can fly. But even those are no longer a gift of freedom – just mere crutches used for the task of journeying from one part of the prison yard to the next in search of their daily freebie. They might as well have legs being as I deem their wings useless. These birds have become content and lazy and it fills me with dread and sadness. Will it be like that for me upon my release? Will I be so institutionalized that I depend on welfare, food vouchers, and the kindness of others through charity in order to make my way? Can I even survive outside of the guard towers without free bed, meals and medical? Or am I too, broken like these birds I view? Will I be able to see the hope in me after a caged bird breaks free? I secretly hope one day people stop feeding them so that they can fend for themselves and make it on their own like nature intended. For they should wake up and fly away to greener pasture never to return or create a future generation of eggs to hatch which will be born into freedom. To fly high and explore the endless sky.
“Dimensions” by Albert
I sat up on many gloomy nights staring at the cell walls. And a small ray of hope ebbed itself through me in a small cell where you are able to see the embers of dust present themselves as snowflakes dancing in the shadows with their angry dirty faces. For many decades, I’ve adjusted to incarceration: the faint smell of the zoo and predators move themselves back and forth hoping that some soul would reach in, not to harm but to feel the warmth of a kind heart. Existence for me became a 4×10 foot cell, in many cases, and as I reached out my arms the cell becomes smaller in size. Dimensions are an illusion. What they don’t compute is the toilet, bunks, and sink. In some prisons, I can put a hand and shoulder against one wall and it’s not a far reach. Your existence is a cement dungeon, dry, stripped of all feelings. In these circumstances two men will get to know one another and some will form a tight-bond while others will want to kill each other before the first week is over. Cell size will depend on the relationship. I’ve seen so much violence and grief. For there is a camouflage of bloodshed and a reflection of a man’s eyes through the mirror, and I’m hoping to get a glimpse of some other soul, but really, we only see the screams and a sense of not being heard. I remember the fights behind the walls at another prison and the smell of copper and the blood engraved blanket we wrapped with a man’s flesh and a body being carried out. We chose the life because we were born into this life.
“Under the Mat” by Phil
Two inches of cotton wrapped in plastic, formed and fitted to resemble a mattress placed on top of a steel frame is where I lay my head every day with two sheets and two blankets and a pillow that wasn’t issued. Nope, I had to make it. That pretty much describes every bed in prison – just to give you a little insight on how we’re living. But, what makes each bed different? It’s not how the bed looks. It is what’s under the mat: a lot of legal mail and paperwork from the courts, pictures of loved ones showing support, swimsuit magazines and hood books of all titles, state envelopes, newspapers, some version of the Bible, a fairly new jumpsuit only to be worn to visits that is creased and neatly folded to give that “fresh” appearance, request slips to counselors that will never get a reply, broken down razors for a haircut and a line. And there’s that one thing we all hate to see: a calendar. But, for some reason we still take a peek – that itself gives us a reason to never come back and put the things we cherish most, under the mat.
“Daddy’s Little Princess” by Phil
You’re Daddy’s little princess.
Your light shines bright,
in the midst of my darkness.
Your voice takes the pain away.
Your laughter can run the rain away.
You’re such an angel.
Your wings are made of gold.
He sent you straight from Heaven.
Baby girl, you warm my soul.
I miss you like the sky misses the sun at midnight,
and that brings me joy, for the sun will kiss the sky
again at sunrise.
And I too, shall kiss those chubby cheeks soon.
You’re my joy.
You’re my life.
You’re my love.
You’re Daddy’s little princess.
“Testimonial” by Branden
This creative writing class is an outlet that allowed me to vent my frustrations while creating something therapeutic and ultimately timeless. All my life experiences are connected. I liken it to my Culinary Arts juncture where I was able to utilize my creativity in constructing meals, blending flavors, and designing menus for different functions. By learning that, I was able to understand how all my past involvements enlisted multiple skill sets that could be transferred to my writing. It was like I was mastering the perfect recipe of me. The ingredients being past courses and classes I took, and the values they embody became like spices added in to enhance the product. Writing and sharing my story has given me the opportunity to rediscover who I really am, who I was meant to be, and to finally begin realizing my potential.
Ms. Debra helps create an artistic atmosphere where the students can learn as well as create; an environment that transforms into a safe space filled with ideas as well as support, place where you can learn to trust and be yourself without judgmental eyes from others surrounding you. The critiques have made me a stronger communicator and I’m grateful to be able to enter this state of mind before my release because it has given me a new way to see my daily life in confinement as a series of stories.
My regular dramas are now great plots with my fellow offenders, staff – and even volunteers as the characters push my otherwise mundane life to become an adventure. Through writing, I can see how my pain and hardship have also become my saving grace so now I write every day for myself as well as my future to be able to release my frustrations and find the talent within myself is a gift more precious than gold.
“The Recipe of Me” by Branden
I am the sum of a road long traveled before I was even thought of. The product of two intersecting lives who survived long enough to collide at a certain moment in time. My parents at one point certainly vibed. They married and never divorced, but separated before I experienced my first hug, which didn’t matter to me, because I have no doubt that I was created out of love. I was born at a wedding on the 28th day of February during a year that leaps. A healthy 12-pound baby nicknamed “Fatboy” with a head full of hair and two front teeth. If you wonder why I talk so much, it’s because I had an early start, by age one I could speak. At two I could draw, and I could walk at the age of three, read a little and ride our dog like a pony through the project halls. I grew up adventurous and full of mischief and thought to have “a gift.” What for? Nobody could seem to say though I was special in certain ways, thought to be ahead of my days. Everybody knew I had a gift, but nobody warmed me. It was a maze. I was good at a lot of things, got enrolled in a lot of classes where I demonstrated a lot of talent, but for some reason I couldn’t seem to find my passion. Art was an ability that just came naturally. I took it for granted and didn’t hone my skills, because it came too easy. Sports were cool but not my coaches. I was treated like a project and once I got hurt – they didn’t need me. I made my classmates laugh, and my teacher called me the “class clown.” The confusion of trying to live up to everyone’s expectations started to bring me down which led me to search for something I eventually found. The streets have a gravitational pull that is all on its own. A whole underworld of enticement can make you leave your home for the unknown. Instant gratification modified my sense of rules and regulations. I took on a whole new education without the text books. My teachers became criminals with wayward looks. I tore down my dreams and reconstructed them as schemes. With nothing to lose, I have everything to prove and so much to gain, but it required some pain. Thus, I left home at fourteen years old under the pretense I was a man full-grown. This was my chance to have status in a society that regarded me as a kid, because in the counter-culture you earned respect by deeds of dirt that you did. But there is fine print on this pamphlet I failed to read. My arrogance that I was gifted made me believe I’d succeed. But, what a tangled web we weave when wants outweigh needs, and I seem to have made all my decisions based on greed. I planted these seeds that formed strong roots, but I was unaware of this new strange fruit. Time hung on the vine like laundry on a clothesline, now tally up your entrance, because you chose to do the crime. At eighteen I was given thirty years to reflect. After seventeen years I can now see the cause and effect. I am the sum of my totals, the project of my recipe. I am whoever I make myself and whatever I choose to be.