An Open Letter from Donna Roberts

An Open Letter to the Members of Prison Renaissance from Donna Roberts


Let me start by confirming some of the things you may already be thinking.
I am not male.
I am not Black or Hispanic. I have never been openly discriminated against because of my race or religion. I have never been racially profiled.
I have never been incarcerated.
I have never been arrested or detained.
I have never been in a gang.
I have never taken illegal drugs. I have never even taken a drag on a cigarette.
No one in my family came home drunk and angry or forgot to feed me because they were high.
I always had clean clothes and a comfortable home.
I grew up in a nice neighborhood. We rode bikes, swam in swimming pools, played Monopoly.
I was not afraid.
I was not abused.
I have never gone hungry.
I have never experienced physical violence.
I have never witnessed a loved one experience physical violence.

I am not you.
I have not seen the things you have seen.
I have not walked a mile, or even a step, in your shoes.
In fact, in dozens of ways I am probably the opposite of you.
In short, I am a privileged white girl from a good neighborhood.

So, what can I possibly have to say to you?
I can say that despite all our differences, despite that we are worlds apart, we can come together for a common cause.
Many of you are familiar with Dr. Philip Zimbardo and his famous Stanford Prison Experiment. Before the experiment Phil was just another faculty member trying to teach students and conduct the research required of faculty. So he set up a simple experiment. He had no idea what he was about to stumble upon. But what he found was so profound that he spent the rest of his career – the rest of his life actually – working with some aspect of it.

Before I “stumbled upon” Prison Renaissance, before I “met” Camille and Emile I used to think, “I need to find my Zimbardo.”

I was well-read and interested in many diverse areas of psychology. But I needed to find focus and meaning and something worth dedicating the rest of my career to.

Before, I didn’t talk or write about anything political or controversial. I didn’t write about my opinions.

But, when confronted with the issues related to prison reform I remembered what I used to tell the adolescents in the CHOICES juvenile diversion program I co-created. I used to quote a country western song (I know, a questionable source, but bear with me). I used to say, “If you don’t stand for something, you’re gonna fall for anything.”

Those words came back to me as I read the mission and goals of Prison Renaissance. I knew it was time for me to stand for something.

Before, I had only a vague idea about prison overcrowding and racial disparity in prison populations. If you’d asked me if America’s prisons were overcrowded, I would have said, “Well, yeah, I think some of them probably are.”

I didn’t know that taken as a whole, the population of those in prison and jail would constitute the fourth largest city in America (Source: Prison Policy Initiative / U.S. Census Bureau).

I didn’t know that in 17 states, prisons are filled beyond capacity with the highest reaching 196%.

I didn’t know that because of overcrowding prisoners routinely died due to medical neglect.

I didn’t know that the U.S. imprisons black men at almost five times the rate that South Africa did during apartheid.

I didn’t know that more black adults are incarcerated by the correctional system today — in prison or jail, on probation or parole — than under slavery in 1850 (Sources: Prison Policy Initiative; The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness).

If you’d asked me if recidivism was a problem, I would have said, “Yeah, I think the rates are probably too high.”

I didn’t know that over two thirds of people who leave prison will return – 68% within 3 years and 77% within 5 years (U.S. Bureau of Justice).

If you’d asked me about the increase in prison population, I’d have assumed that it had risen somewhat over the last decades.

I didn’t know that the huge drop in the crime rate since 1990 did not slow the pace of mass incarceration.

I didn’t know that the prison population had increased 400% since the Reagan presidency.

I didn’t know that the U.S. has the largest incarceration system in the world – that despite comprising only 5% of the world population, the U.S. has 25% of the world’s prisoner population (Sources: Bureau of Justice Statistics; The Sentencing Project).

If you asked me about “enhancements”, I’d have thought you meant the added features in the latest software update.

I didn’t know about California’s system of sentence enhancements, whereby tens of thousands serve time in prison substantially longer than the sentence for their original crime (Source: NBC News).

If you’d asked me if mental illness was a problem in prisons, I’d have replied that, “Rates of mental illness among prisoners are probably slightly above those of the general population.”

I didn’t know that more than half of all inmates in jails and state prisons have some form of mental illness (Source: Urban Institute Report).

If you’d asked me if drugs were a problem in prisons, I’d have surmised that the drug problem was probably tightly controlled, with some exceptions.

I didn’t know that 65% of the nation’s inmates meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction, but only 11% receive treatment (Source: National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse).

I didn’t know.

But now I do know.

So I think it’s time to stand for something. And that something is prison reform.

So what can I say to you that might have meaning?

I can say that despite all the layers of our differences I see very clearly that what society is doing with regard to the treatment of prisoners is not working.
And it’s not been working long enough that it’s time to look for alternative ways of doing things.

Thank you, Prison Renaissance, for helping me find my Zimbardo. I hope together we can foster change.

Citizenship: Reframing Incarceration

Citizenship: Reframing Incarceration
by Emile DeWeaver, Editor

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. – Declaration of Independence

I. The State of Our Union

Liberty is tied to our idea of humanity. Wherever we find Liberty lacking, we find men and women struggling against dehumanization. American Liberty comes as response to an empire that disregarded colonists’ human needs and tried to reduce them through taxes into means of production. Though the liberation of African slaves was rooted in both political and economic concerns, it also resulted from ethical concerns, i.e., the tension between the dehumanization of people and the Declaration of Independence’s promise of Liberty. Liberty, then, includes the unalienable right to have one’s humanity recognized by one’s nation, a right often denied to incarcerated citizens.

Liberty is mine by virtue of my citizenship. Though my crimes necessitate a temporary restriction of my physical Liberty, they shouldn’t abrogate my humanity. Despite this, criminal stigma – a punishment that extends beyond incapacitation – has become a normative component of American criminal justice. This stigma is supported by laws that limit my educational, employment, housing, and political opportunities, not just while I’m incarcerated, but for the rest of my life. This stigma means that tomorrow, a prison guard could beat me to death, say that I died of a urinary tract infection, and face no meaningful challenge. It means Americans routinely reduce other Americans to objects.

Often in prison, correctional officers reduce people of means to punishment. One man yelling obscenities at an offer can result in an entire population being locked in their cell for hours. Officers use blanket punishments to provoke those innocent of offense to become angry and inflict retribution on the offender. If one complains about being punished for another’s actions, officers sometimes respond, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”

Some officers reduce incarcerated people to a means of entertainment. A guard will stop a man and assail him with antagonistic (and often ridiculous) questions: “Hey, come here. Where you going? Why you taking a book to the hospital? Oh, you’re reading this Harry Potter shit? You like wizards and wands and shit?” The recipient of this abuse must endure it. He cannot walk away because the officer gave him a direct order: “Hey, come here.” To disobey would risk a disciplinary infraction (which for some means five to ten additional years in prison). It’s called: “Just fucking with you,” and if you have no sense of humor, well, “You shouldn’t have come to prison.”

Institutionalized dehumanization in the American penal system implies that Liberty is alienable. I urge readers to examine this, and decide whether they want to live in a constitutional democracy where this is possible.

II. Standing for an American Vision

To some, it may seem hypocritical as I appeal to the principals of a society that I spent my teen years attempting to destroy. They might compare me to a cardsharp lecturing other card players about the virtues of honest play. I don’t want to argue about the messenger’s right or lack thereof, because whatever we conclude shouldn’t make Liberty alienable. I, however, would ask those who would use my criminal history to detract from my argument to consider, please, that though I’m being justly punished for crimes I’ve committed, I’m not being punished for who or what I am today. I was a criminal when I was 18 years old. I’m not a criminal now; many incarcerated people are not criminals now, and I submit that not only should our nation protect the human Liberty of everyone in prison, but it should be invested in restoring the physical Liberty of anyone who is no longer a criminal.

Imagine a woman named Jane goes to war for her country, serves with honor, and discharges as an American hero on January 1, 2000. How should Jane’s nation treat her? Of course, it should honor her sacrifices: she should enjoy health care, safe and affordable housing, employment opportunities, and a chance for advancement in her society. Imagine this same war hero murders a man on January 1, 2016. How should Jane’s nation treat her? While her nation shouldn’t deny the sacrifices Jane made 16 years ago, it can’t predicated her treatment, the Liberty afforded to her, on who Jane was 16 years ago. She must face incarceration. The following syllogisms sum up the principle underlying my assertion:

A person is a constructive citizen: they should be treated well. Jane is a constructive citizen; therefore she should be treated well. A person is a destructive citizen: they should be treated badly[1]. Jane is a destructive citizen; therefore she     should be treated badly.

[1] Here, “badly” is used to indicate punitive measures and not inhumane treatment.

When Jane becomes a destructive citizen, her nation is justified in restricting her Liberty, notwithstanding her prior service. But just as Jane’s antisocial change in behavior necessitated a punitive change in her government’s treatment of her, a pro-social change in her behavior should necessitate a restorative change in said treatment. By the same principle, I was a criminal when I was 18 years old, and so my Liberty was restricted. But in a nation that promises unalienable rights to its citizens, I should be released if I become a constructive citizen.

I’m a constructive citizen who can talk about honest play, with as much standing as anyone at the card table. That means I’ve awakened to civic duty. I’m an incarcerated-American who wants to contribute what I can economically and socially to improve society. The first thing I have to contribute is my life story, which is a roadmap for policymakers trying to correct the cycles of violence that I’ve already overcome. I, at one time, felt so alienated from society that I believed myself justified in committing crimes against it, but I’ve also been walking my path to redemption for almost 20 years.

My rebirth emerged with my daughter. My love for her broke through the hatreds I had for society and myself, revealing my animosities as shells hiding the vulnerabilities – fear and rejection – that I didn’t want to face. I didn’t know how to face them, but I turned to the only power I felt I had in a cell, writing, and I survived my demons. I learned that knowledge and loving acceptance of my failings – and the failings of others – constitutes courage. With my survival came a survivor’s toolbox: empathy, insight, and the passion to shape the world into a place where others don’t suffer as you’ve suffered. I’m convinced that these tools are teachable. I became a writer to teach others these tools. I’ve dedicated the past five years of my life to giving these tools to other incarcerated men, and I started Prison Renaissance to spread these tools to all the women and men incarcerated in the world.

I want to tell you there are others like me in prison. They are the living solutions to failing schools in the inner-city, survivors with the empathy to connect with the gang-banger on your neighborhood, advocates with the insight and passion to transform that gang-banger into a survivor with a matching passion. Imagine the social transformations that would be possible if our solution to urban violence wasn’t to subtract people from the equation, but to transform them into living solutions. I want you to know that people like me comprise a minority of the prison populations, but that’s mainly because prison policies tend to produce the opposite of empathy, insight, and civic engagement. If people with the tools, the passion, and the proximity to at-risk communities comprised the majority of prison populations, imagine the social transformations that could be possible, from raising high school graduation rates to increasing the civic participation of marginalized youth. These things are possible if we change the way we approach crime and punishment. That’s the vision.

III. Reframing Incarceration

If we’re ever to see the vision of turning incarcerated people into agents of transformation, we have to end the nightmare. We need to examine and redefine the role of prison in society. Incarcerations’ primary function needs to be reduction of criminality within a framework consistent with American Liberty. Instead, our prison system has become a nightmare that destroys Liberty and promotes criminality.

Criminality is too complex to attribute to one cause, but it begins and ends with alienation. The reasons I felt justified selling drugs and employing violence are manifold, but part of it was that I felt like you hated e, like you disregarded my needs. As a teen, I lacked the tools to process the complexities of social injustice, so I reacted with hate for you and a disregard for you needs. I enacted my animosity and disregard for your needs by committing crimes, not against you, but them. I reduced you to my means of retribution against an enemy I couldn’t define. This human disconnection lies at the heart of criminality, which is why it’s vital that we build a new vision for our prison system.

Penal policies isolate incarcerated people – anyone who’s tried to visit or form a relationship with someone in prison can tell you that – and criminal stigma continues to isolate individuals even after they’ve paid their prescribed societal debt. In an ethical society, penal policies should aim to change a person’s behavior, but how is this possible when penal policies reinforce the alienation that leads to crime? It’s not possible. In fact, I can think of no strategy more likely to increase crime rates, incidences of broken families, and to increase suffering – in short, to reduce Liberty.

IV. A New Frame

I’m an incarcerated-American. I believe in a safer public, as you do, which is why I believe we need to approach crime and punishment in an ethical way, consistent with the promise of Liberty for every American citizen. What might that look like? I look forward to sharing my ideas, my life’s roadmap, in the coming months. In the meantime, let the debates begin. But let them not be about who’s toughest on criminals or how much money we might save if we reduce the time people serve in prison. Let the debates be about how we can transform incarcerated populations into community servants who are eager to help solve our nation’s social problems.

Stopping Animals

by Rahsaan Thomas

A bear crept down Boyland Avenue, scouting for shade and food in broad day. Urban expansion had pushed in on his habitat, drying the waterways and killing the fish. He had been roaming for hours. The inside of his throat felt like dirt.


Working in her garden beneath a relentless sun, Maria tended to her flowers. She adored gardening when her husband left for the office and the kids were off to school. Noticing her neighbor’s thirsty brown grass, she sprayed to the right, through the wire fence. Smiling at her good deed, she hummed.


Through Maria’s fence, the approaching animal saw the water spouting. He headed toward it in a lassitude, not caring about the woman. He pushed through an open gate in the three-foot fence and wobbled to relief.


Maria heard a strange snuffling sound behind her. When she turned, she dropped the hose and began to wail. Startled, the bear rose to his hind legs and lashed out with a paw, grazing her right arm. Blood dripped onto her tan clogs. The bear drank.

Running blindly into the house, Maria slammed the glass door, locking it behind her. Stumbling to the coffee table, she picked up her phone.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

“I’ve just been attacked by a black bear,” Maria screeched.


A few blocks away, rookie officer Jose Lopez sat with his thoughts while his captain, Michael Conner, drove the patrol car. They were approaching the block where an officer had killed an unarmed teenager a week earlier. Out of the passenger window, a portrait of 17-year-old Rodney Sanchez had been spray-painted on the side of a Wal-Mart. The teen’s eyes stared down from under a baseball cap, a smile on his face.

Beside the mural, a pre-teen with brown skin and Hispanic features placed an old catcher’s mitt among rows of baseball cards, flowers, and flickering candles. Looking up from beneath his hoodie, the kid glared and raised his middle finger at the squad car.

Lopez felt Conner staring at him, heard him sign before speaking. “We have a duty to protect and serve, but you have to stay alive to do that. When you feel danger, trust your instincts and your training.”

The rookie heard what the captain was saying, but still couldn’t shake what happened to the teen memorialized on the wall. Interrupting Lopez’s thoughts, a dispatcher’s urgent voice stated, “The animal attacked a woman and is to be considered extremely dangerous. It was last seen in the back yard area of Eighth and Boyland Avenue.”

“Cut on the siren.” Conner wheeled the black and white, as red and blue lights flashed and the siren screamed. Lopez braced himself against the dashboard.

“It jumped a fence and headed toward Seventh,” crackled the radio.

“We’re coming down Boyland, approaching Seventh now,” Lopez answered.

The cruiser braked in front of Maria’s Tudor. A pathway curved around the side into the back yard. Conner jumped out and sprinted down the passageway. “Get the tranq gun when animal control gets here.”

The wait wasn’t long.

“Where is he?” asked one of the guys who jumped out of the green van, Animal Control lettered in yellow on the side.

“My partner’s in back. Follow me with that tranq,” said Lopez.

They found Conner in a nearby back yard with his firearm aimed at a seven foot black bear, standing on his hind legs. The bear bellowed, clawed at the air, and then dropped to all fours. A brick wall and a six foot wooden fence boxed the bear in a corner, leaving only one escape route. The bear charged toward the officers.

Lopez panicked, drawing his Glock 19.

“Don’t shoot, he’s just an animal!” yelled Conner.

Animal Control moved out of the way, corralling the bear toward another empty back yard. The animal jumped the fence.

Conner grabbed the tranquilizer gun from animal control and gave pursuit. The bear ran past the side of a house and reached the corner of Seventh and Boyland.

“Stop him,” cried Lopez, confused and angry.

The captain pulled the trigger and a shot echoed. A dart smacked the bear in his rear right flank. The animal halted in mid-step, growled and turned toward Conner, who fired once more. This shot hit the bear’s chest. The bear closed his eyes, shook his head slowly, and began to retreat with darts sticking out of him. The officers followed the bear down the empty residential block toward Rodney’s memorial.

The painted boy’s eyes watched the bear struggle until it landed on the ground with a thud, knocking over cards, smothering candle flames, and smashing stuffed animals.

Lopez couldn’t look up at the boy’s eyes.


Rahsaan Thomas grew up in New York City, but he writes from a cell in California. He’s a staff writer for San Quentin News and the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He has also been published in The Marshall Project, Missouri Review’s Literature on Lockdown, Life of the Law, The Beat Within, & Brothers in Pen’s 2014 & 2015 anthologies.

At age 45, he became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.

A Conversation Between Rahsaan Thomas & Emile DeWeaver

September 2016

Rahsaan Thomas: How did you come up with Prison Renaissance?

Emile DeWeaver: Bryant Stevenson gave a talk for the Prison University Project and said people looking for solutions need to get proximate with the people most affected by those problems. I’m passionate about prison reform, so I started thinking: How can I become more proximate to people who support mass incarceration, people who fear me? At the same time, something else was going on; I started to see how my writing created proximity between me and editors, between me and readers. I remember someone read Identity in front of me and cried.

It was a moment of connection that shifted and tugged at me during Stevenson’s talk, but I didn’t understand its importance until that day I read your essay. You, Rahsaan, wrote about a renaissance among artists happening in prison, and it hit me. That’s what we need to present to the world, this prison renaissance, this rebirth of humanity and re-connection with healthy, progressive roles in society.

Thomas: You were originally sentenced to 67 years to life for murder and attempted murder, committed when you were 18. This year California passed Senate Bill 261 which may give you a second chance soon, but how did you stay motivated when you thought you were never going home?

DeWeaver: I couldn’t accept that I was never going home, so I didn’t. I didn’t know how I was going to make it home to my daughter, but I knew the only way it could happen was if I was prepared. So I spent the better part of 20 years changing my life and my perspective, not because I think I can somehow earn the right to go home, but because if I ever experience that moment of grace, I need to be ready.

A lot of people thought I was in denial. And in truth it was partly denial, but it was also faith in human potential. And solace because even if I died in prison, at least I’d die a good man. That was as important for me as freedom … I feel the need to be precise when talking about my criminal history, so I want to state this clearly: I don’t think my transformation counterbalances my crimes. Murder is horrible; it’s a vacuum that can’t be filled. I carry that. And I’m able to do that partially because of the strength I draw from the fact that I’ve become a different man.

Thomas: I feel like you draw strength from writing, too.

DeWeaver: Yeah, absolutely.


Rahsaan Thomas (l) and Emile DeWeaver (r) at the San Quentin C.A.R.E.S Avon Breast Cancer Walk
Rahsaan Thomas (l) & Emile DeWeaver (r), San Quentin C.A.R.E.S Avon Breast Cancer Walk


Thomas: How did you become a writer?

DeWeaver: I’ve always had the talent. In elementary school, I wrote a story where it seems like a serial killer is stalking through a house, but it turns out to be a cat. I wrote it because I was acting out against my teacher, but she ruined my plan by liking it. [laughs] Over the years, I wrote on and off, but I didn’t take it seriously until I was on trial for murder.

It’s complicated. There are a lot of reasons why the lowest moment in my life turned me into a writer. So first, trying to process and cope with murdering somebody as an 18-year-old kid with little family support, I was writing just to survive. It was the only thing I knew how to do that gave me bearing in the world.

Second, my daughter was born while I stood trial, and I began to see the world through her eyes. I saw me through her eyes, and I couldn’t bear the fact that she would grow up and one day someone would ask her, “What does your dad do for a living?” There was nothing I could do to save her from that stigma because I couldn’t take back a lifetime of bad decisions. So the next best thing was to at least give her something to be proud of. If I could give her nothing else, I could show her that no matter how low you’ve fallen, you’re never too low to climb back up. If she internalizes that, I can live with all the ways I’ve failed her as a father.

There’s a third reason [I became a writer], but it doesn’t mean anything next to that.

Thomas: Fair enough. If I remember correctly, you were writing fantasy stories when I met you in Zoe’s creative writing class [in San Quentin State Prison]. Then you read “Superman,” a story about a disabled, gay, Arab man who sets himself on fire. What sparked the 180 degree change in direction for your writing?

DeWeaver: Chance. I read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao. I loved fantasy, and I was stubborn about writing anything else. But when I read Diaz, it felt clear that here is a great writer who loves fantasy as I do, and even though he wasn’t writing fantasy, be found a way to incorporate that love.

He showed me a new way to write, and then came our first public reading for creative writing. I struggled with a horror story about the end of the world where a man in his wheelchair is stuck in his house with a monster in another room. The themes were powerlessness and isolation. The story kept getting longer, too long for a five minute read, so I stripped away everything that wasn’t essential to isolation and powerlessness. What remained was the first line of “Superman.”

Thomas: And “Superman” was the first story you published?

DeWeaver: Yeah. The Lascaux Review published it in 2014 and the editors there changed my life. They saw something in me that I only hoped was there.

Thomas: I’ve noticed the stories you’ve written that have resonated the most with the public – and me – are the ones about your life. How did you turn from fiction and fantasy to reality and why do you think it has been more impactful?

DeWeaver: I wouldn’t say I turned from fantasy to reality because writing fantasy didn’t produce something less authentic than my biographical work. When you write something you’re passionate about, you’re writing about your life. The difference is that with fantasy, I explore humanity in a broad sense in order to better understand myself. With nonfiction, I explore my own life in order to understand humanity. Two ends of the same project.

Thomas: For me, it’s hard to be vulnerable in nonfiction because you’re exposing your weaknesses for the world to judge. Isn’t it easier to write freely in fiction?

DeWeaver: Sure it is, but I feel like its important as an incarcerated writer, especially, to expose myself. There’s a lot of social reasons for this – we’ve talked about proximity before – but right now, I’m talking strictly from a professional standpoint. I don’t have traditional credentials; I can’t tour bookstores to promote my work. What I do have is my voice. Incarceration is like being at the bottom of a well, and stripping bare on the page is my way of shouting real loud.

Thomas: You’ve had poems, personal essays, and short stories published. What’s your favorite art form?

DeWeaver: Poetry. If feels like the closest thing to me. When I write fiction, it’s an arduous process to come up with something worth writing. It’s another journey executing the idea well. Writing about myself is a little easier in that I already have the story material, I just figure out how to relate it. But poetry’s another animal. When I pen verse, I just explode. It’s powerful and sex-good, and I don’t know where it comes from.

Thomas: What do you hope to accomplish through your art?

DeWeaver: I want to connect with people. And reveal new ways to see the world.

Thomas: New ways to see the world?

DeWeaver: Yeah. I guess I’m thinking about a public conversation between President Obama and novelist Marilynne Robinson. Obama sees a correlation between the decline of the novel and the decline of empathy in our culture. When I’m revealing new worlds, I’m trying to increase empathy in our culture. [smiles] Batman fights crime and corruption with tech; my super power is empathy.

Thomas: [laughs] So you’re officially coming out as a superhero?

DeWeaver: I’m Poetman. Hear me read.

Thomas: Okay, what real life heroes inspire you?

DeWeaver: Nelson Mandela. He knew that the way to affect lasting change could never be through division and could only be sustained through unity – even if that unity was with one’s enemies. So he knew how to look at the big picture. His pride, his pain, his struggle – nothing was more important than the good he wanted and that was peace.

Thomas: What about literary heroes? Who influences you?

DeWeaver: Khalil Gibran, he’s an Arab poet. He writes about divinity in beauty and love, human connection, the hells and heavens we create. He’s a humanist – though I don’t know he’d describe himself as such. I have a lot of influences: Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, Junot Diaz, Tolkien. Surprisingly, the Old Testament heavily informs my style.

Thomas: [laughs] That is surprising. You’re an atheist right?

DeWeaver: I am. I’ve never been religious, but my family was, and I used to love the mythology in biblical stories. Samson with the donkey’s jaw, laying down a Philistine army. Moses – Prince of Egypt, leading his people to the Promised Land. Esther, who would become Queen. These stories sparked my love for mythology.

Thomas: You talked about your daughter earlier. Can we talk about parenting from prison? What’s that been like for you?

DeWeaver: [pause] Being a parent serving life in prison is to know that you have failed before you’ve even started. You still have to do all the right you can in their lives, but you know – I know that even if my child got cancer and I gave her the cure, I have failed.

Being a parent here is knowing I don’t know the person I love most. It’s the strangest thing I’ve experienced: as much as she loves me, she doesn’t know me either. It’s hell.

Thomas: But your daughter is doing well, she’s in college, right? What have you done to contribute to her success?

DeWeaver: “Contribute to her success” … those are strong words. I wouldn’t frame it like that. What I do is write to her. Every year since her birth, I’ve sent her something for her birthday. I drew portraits of us for her because for most of my incarceration, that’s all I’ve had, materially, to give her.

Thomas: She’s an artist, too, so your portraits inspired something in her.

DeWeaver: I like to think that. She does manga and anime, commission work. She’s in college learning to design video games. Basically, she’s awesome.

Thomas: Let’s shift topics. I want to throw you under the bus a little. It’s almost election time, and a lot of female volunteers are excited about Hillary becoming president. I’ve heard you call yourself a feminist; but you’re not happy about the first woman president.

DeWeaver: My problem with Hillary is she’s touted as a step forward for feminism, and I don’t see it. By and large, the inequalities that exist are because of the paradigm that it’s a rich, white man’s world. Women like Hillary and Condoleezza Rice have succeeded by becoming the functional equivalent of rich, white men. While that doesn’t make them bad people, it’s not a step forward for feminism.

If the problem were tanks driving around, leveling our communities, the problem wouldn’t be solved by letting women drive them instead of men. Yes, one goal of feminism is to reduce oppression, but sometimes it feels like we’re satisfied with achieving equal opportunities to oppress. Angela Davis talks about that.

Thomas: Last question. Did you just namedrop Angela Davis, hoping Hillary supporters won’t tear you a new one?

[Both smile]

DeWeaver: Absolutely.

Emile DeWeaver is a 2015 Pushcart nominee with creative work in a dozen publications, including The Lascaux Review, Frigg, Punchnel’s, and The Rumpus. You can find his work on his website and by visiting his monthly column “Good Behavior” at Easy Street.

He is a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.


Rahsaan Thomas grew up in New York City, but he writes from a cell in California. He’s a staff writer for San Quentin News and the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He has also been published in The Marshall Project, Missouri Review’s Literature on Lockdown, Life of the Law, The Beat Within, & Brothers in Pen’s 2014 & 2015 anthologies.

At age 45, he became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.





Objects in Our Rear View Mirror

by Donna L. Roberts, Ph.D.

“But it was long ago, and it was far away
Oh, God it seems so very far.
And if life is like a highway,
Then the soul is just the car,
And objects in the rear view mirror may appear
closer than they are…”
– Lyrics by Meatloaf

The popular rock personality known as “Meatloaf” is by no means a trained psychologist. Nor is he a qualified researcher in the social science arena. He has not attended graduate school. He has no clinical experience. His message is poetic and anecdotal rather than based upon statistical and psychometric standards. He is simply a musician. And yet, his lyrics “Objects in the Rear-View Mirror” reveal the profound effects of traumatic life experience, specifically child abuse, on the ongoing progression of adulthood more poignantly than the finest and most current publications in the field. Simply put, he argues that one does not simply “get over it,” but carries the pain and confusion of early hurts down the road of life.

Childhood is a time of rapid growth and development in the most basic and fundamental aspects of life. It is where the groundwork is laid for the formation of the adult personality. Logically then, a disruption at these critical stages would have profound effects throughout life. Dysfunctional actions cause dysfunctional reactions. When these reactions become incorporated as longstanding patterns of behavior in order to cope and adapt to a skewed reality, “normal” behavior is eclipsed. It has to be that way – for survival sake. Survivors of childhood abuse react to the world differently than “normal” people because they have come to know a much different world – one of insecurity, pain and fear – a world that makes their behavior logical and necessary.

It is generally agreed upon by practitioners from almost every theoretical orientation that, in one form or another, an individual develops basic and pervasive assumptions about one’s self, others, the environment, and the future based upon the messages incorporated and the coping strategies learned during childhood.

Beginning with early Psychoanalytic thought, Freud clearly argued that adult psychopathology resulted from conflicts originating in childhood. He made constant reference to the significance of the child’s relationships with crucial figures in their environment.

Alfred Adler, in his formulations of Individual or Self Psychology, posited the relations within the family as the primary determinant of the lifestyle patterns adopted for adult functioning.

Erik Erikson constructed a developmental schema based on the resolution of fundamental self tasks, and further theorized that their unsuccessful resolution would lead to repeated dysfunction with regard to that specific issue.

Humanist Carl Rogers, who focused minimally on past experiences, acknowledged the contribution of parental conditions of worth in shaping one’s view of self and interpersonal relationships.

Even Behaviorists, including B. F. Skinner, account for the influence of early systems of reward and punishment as influential in directing later behavior.

Thus, it becomes clear that, regardless of the specific mechanism by which it occurs, the many aspects that together form a functioning adult are molded by the experiences of childhood. Following this, dysfunction or trauma in any one of the many areas of development would result in pathology in related areas of adult functioning. Psychological defenses formed in childhood for the purposes of survival become increasingly maladaptive in adult life. These maladaptive responses, which become so pervasive and innate, take symptomatic forms that mimic psychiatric disorders.

In this way, much misdiagnosis occurs as concepts of personality organization and development are applied under ordinary circumstances to victims without understanding the effects of extensive and long-term trauma on basic maturation and personality formation. These diagnoses do not take into consideration the true etiology of symptoms which once represented adaptive survival mechanism and later become maladaptive pathologies. This is the legacy of a child abuse survivor.

In the highly acclaimed recovery book, The Courage to Heal, authors Ellen Bass and Laura Davis recognize the long-term and pervasive effects of child abuse, stating, “It permeates everything: your sense of self, your intimate relationships, your sexuality, your parenting, your work, life, and even your sanity.”

Perhaps, however, the best indication, or “proof”, if you will, of the tragic effects of childhood abuse on adult functioning comes not from a clinical description of ensuing syndromes but, rather from the words of a survivor:

“People have said to me, “Why are you dragging this up now?” Why? WHY? Because it has controlled every facet of my life. It has damaged me in every possible way. It has destroyed everything in my life that has been of value. It has prevented me from having a comfortable emotional life. It’s prevented me from being able to love clearly. It took my children away from me. I haven’t been able to succeed in the world. I know that everything I don’t deal with now is one more burden I have to carry for the rest of my life. I don’t care if it happened 500 years ago! It’s influenced me all that time, and it does matter. It matters very much.”

How can it be that we continue to consider it a revolutionary theory that “Prolonged severe childhood abuse may play a vastly underestimated role in the development of many psychopathologies now ascribed to biological factors, intrapsychic conflicts, or standard family-of-origin issues”.

Isn’t it obvious when we listen to those who have been there and survived to tell about it?

Bio: Donna Roberts is a native upstate New Yorker who lives and works in Europe. She holds a Ph.D., specializing in the field of Media Psychology. When she is researching or writing she can usually be found at her computer buried in rescue cats.

Graphic Novel: Doors of Dementia

Created, Written, and Illustrated by Orlando Smith

The full novel is available in the slideshow below. Click arrows or navigation dots to advance.

Bio: Orlando Smith has created and composed over 57 graphic novels and comic books. His work has appeared in Heavy Metal, and he’s completed a host of commission work including covers for Omega Comics. He did storyboards for the movie Social Tick and for the upcoming film Charlie Charlie. Before Smith was a graphic novelist, he spent six years as a professional tattoo artist and ten years doing custom art on cars.

Gallery: James Sackett – Kitlas

Artist Statement: I’m not good with human forms yet, but lines speak to me. I like to push lines to produce movement on the page. Drawing is a part of who I am. I don’t care what I’m drawing; the process makes me happy.

Art allows me to show myself through my work. So I’ll be remembered.

Self portrait.


Odin’s Blessing. “I envision this and Tyr’s Blessing as part of a series of all 118 Norse Gods and Goddesses.”


Tyr’s Blessing.


Bensozia,  Daughter of Lilith, Knight of Ceremony.


Baftis, Knight of Visions & Personal Sight. “I Began this piece with no goals but to fill the page until I didn’t want to clutter it anymore.”


IMG_2600Bio: Jim Sackett-Kitlas is a 31-year-old graphic artist who specializes in pencil drawings. Growing up up on his family’s horse ranch, Asatru and steampunk interested him as a teenager and both heavily influence his art today.

Sin of Kingdoms

by Emile DeWeaver

There’s a golf course.
Man in white shorts wiggles
bum and measures his iron
against the task. Swings. Club
and dimpled ball clunk. The sound is like
a single knock on a door, the back door

by the window that frames
the chopping log. He flashes
a smile at his companion, a tan
woman with a tucked-in shirt, crisp

as a knight’s tabard. He struts
toward their cart. Short grass
crunches beneath his shoes. Little, brown boy slips
man’s club into bag on cart,
cocks ear, and grabs shorter
club from woman’s bag.

Lady holds out hand as if awaiting
the hilt of Excalibur. She tees up,
chops ball into nearby pond, and
ducks scatter themselves above the maple trees.

Man kicks one foot forward and tips
his head, laughing. Brown boy hurries to stand
beside her when she crooks
finger and makes stabbing
gesture toward her thigh.
She’s talking.
Her head jitters
like a rodent eating bread, chewing
for all she’s worth
before the kitchen light flicks

on. Boy looks at her white
shoes. She points, and he rushes
to the pond. When he reaches the bank,
he plows into the water,
disappears beneath the surface. Pond
goes glassy. Ducks clear round sky. Boy pops

up near bank and runs ball back
to woman. She chops ball again.

Same pond. Man does not laugh.
Woman stabs

at her thigh again. Boy
dashes to hear side, but she says
nothing. They stand there. Stand there.
And stand there. She lifts her club
and staves in the boy’s skill.
One swing. One thunk,

like a fastball in a catcher’s mitt.
Man takes a call. Woman
shades her face with hand,
surveys kingdom. Another cart

pulls onto scene, two men
with a little, brown boy.
The men wear raincoats and rubber boots.
They retrieve the old boy, leave the new

one, and drive away. Grass snapping
beneath the wheels is louder
than the electric engine. Woman begins
to sob. She grabs brown boy and crushes him
to her khaki pants. Man gets off phone.
Grass falls silent.

Emile DeWeaver is a 2015 Pushcart nominee with creative work in a dozen publications, including The Lascaux Review, Frigg, Punchnel’s, and The Rumpus. You can find his work on his website and by visiting his monthly column “Good Behavior” at Easy Street.

He is a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.

The Philiad

by Eel C. Jesus


Part I

O How Phillip wrenches out his heart as
his beloved betrayed thee; she went off
and married another at thirty-three.
A promise once set in stone is now washed
away by tears wrought with anguish and groans.

April – March – June – the seasons crawl by and
he’s locked deep inside the darkest parts
of his soul; living on stale air and weeks
old sweat while his beloved wrestles and
caresses her lover in his old bed.

His thoughts, they cripple every ounce, every
shred of dignity that he possesses. So
now, he’s cemented THIS in his head:
get a gun, shoot both of them, dead. Perhaps,
just him. He’s lost; no reason to live.

Now, Phillip, twisted and seriously
committed, rolls himself off of deaths’ bed;
goes down to the gun store and buys – a chrome
forty-five, pearl inlaid handle, with
an extension clip, plus some hollow tips.

Life is now his to take – his to give. So,
Phillip contemplates until he is fed,
then sleeps restless – quietly with the sweet
smell of sulfur and lead; whispering, “Til
death do us part my lovely, lovely heart.”

To start, he writes his Will along with a
note chronicling the hurt that he feels.
Finished, he wraps his lips around the bitch,
strains to pull the trigger – realizes –
that cowards are doomed to watch their wishes.

Again, Phillip decides, he’ll sit and
write a letter, a confession, or to
ask, why? All of which, he softly addressed:
Dear My Beloved – followed with each and
every word he’s ever left unsaid.


Part II

Satisfied with what he writes, Phillip sends
his letter out that night. Three days later,
A husband receives – an envelope with
no return address – just bold print that reads:
TO: MY BELOVED – “Wait, is this, for me?”

With pains, the husband reads a detailed list
of how someone else confesses to love
HIS one and only, HIS most cherished. Oh,
what a wicked game his love plays, and HIM,
a doting, faithless pawn, who shares her shame.

Twelve hours pass, twelve, on a Wednesday and
a wife is not yet home, neither is she
answering her phone. Her husband’s in
the kitchen; cold soup on the table – warmth –
gone since four. Yells, “O’ where is that damn whore!”

A quarter after ten. The wife walks in,
she sees her husband, seething, standing in –
the kitchen with knife in hand, pleading, “O’
my love, where have you been? Please, don’t say
work. I’ve been there – you – haven’t been in.”

The wife, too tired to fight, tries to walk
away, but her husband stands in her face.
“I want answers,” he says. She pushes him;
she wants space. Slighted, he grabs her, holds her
tight, but the knife is pointed out and it –

Slides nicely between her ribs which ends her
life, but he still stabs her: three more times. When
he realizes what he’s done, he
stumbles, fumbles, scrambles, for his gun. “Oh,
my wife,” he signs with regret, and then … Death.


Part III

Poor ole Phillip – whom – hasn’t left his house;
He’s a recluse – life is doubt. Maybe,
one day, he’ll find purpose, but right now,
nothing is within sight; his life’s a
constant struggle, yet it is his to fight.

He’s sick of the silence and turns on
the TV – Breaking News: Husband and Wife
Both Dead, Murder-Suicide. Phillips’ heart
stops beating in his chest. HIS beloved –
dead – along with her maybes; his, what ifs.

Now, it’s said that Phillip throws a note
onto the floor – Squeezes – and just as the
Light exits his head, he remembers that,
yes, he’d left one thing, just one, unsaid.
And that, was reason enough to have lived.

Eel C. Jesus lives and writes in Northern Calfornia.