Category Archives: Featured Works

Good Apples, by Alan Devenish

Good Apples

Reading Macbeth’s monologue
in the women’s maximum security
prison, the room goes quiet—
those petty tomorrows tumbling
toward a furious nothing—until
a voice among the lowered heads
intones, “He’s talking about us.”
“It’s just like here,” someone else
says, “every day the same.” Affirmative
murmurs fill our circle. Then the student
with the baseball cap and bag of snacks
sighs, “Well, this is depressing,”
which somehow lifts the mood,
a deprecatory pebble dropped
into the gloom, rippling out
into laughter.

A shout in the hallway—the guard
calling the line. The women stand, pack
their see-through knapsacks, square
the circled desks back into rows,
then form ranks for their return
to yesterday’s tomorrow.

Earlier, unbagging my night-class fare
of cheese and crackers, I hoped
the badly needed rain would stop
before the long drive home.
But not bad, that apple
from our moribund tree
still squeezing out some sweetness
before the fruit falls, bruised
surfeit for some foraging bear.

Exiting, I notice they’ve painted
the cinderblock white with black
borders, as if color itself were a crime.
My inked wrist fluoresces under the lamp’s
ultraviolet eye, and the officer
in her Plexiglas booth releases me
with the simple twist of a switch.

With better luck and a touch of grace
(a summary pardon declaring these women
all good apples), my students in their prison
-issue drab would also find themselves
outside the clanging gates, clothed
in the warm end of the spectrum,
the soft floodlit rain falling
on their upturned faces.


Artist Statement: “Good Apples” owes its origin to my students’ response to a reading of the “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow ” soliloquy from Macbeth in our poetry class. I chose the speech to illustrate the use of metaphor but what occurred surpassed any lesson I could have foreseen. Several students volunteered to read the passage aloud and when they had finished I invited comments. When none followed, I assumed the students were still grappling with the intricacies of Shakespearean rhetoric. Then, when they did voice their reactions it became clear they not only “got” the metaphors but saw in them the desperation of their own lives, the “petty pace” of incarceration, the sameness of their tomorrows. As students spoke, others nodded or assented verbally, so that a sort of felt consensus pervaded the room. I was touched, if saddened at their intimate connection to these words crafted four centuries ago, how the poetry spoke to them and for them. It struck me at the same time how different my life was from any of theirs. Yet, through the poetry we were sharing a language that spoke to us all. And through their response to these words they too were communicating their lives to one another and to me. In that moment, I never felt more “in prison” and yet felt that we had transcended the bounds of this environment through the medium of metaphor. It was this–the students’ vulnerable and honest response to the poetry–that prompted my own words. I wanted to acknowledge and if possible honor their language and their lives.


Alan Devenish currently teaches in the Bard Prison Initiative and has taught literature and human rights for the Marymount Manhattan Prison College Program. 

They Left & The Sun is a Flower by Joseph Krauter

“They Left” by Joseph Krauter


The Sun is a Flower by Joseph Krauter


Joseph Krauter is a 33-year-old writer and visual artist. He writes horror; and his visual mediums are watercolors, colored pencils, and lead pencils. Mr. Krauter has ASD Spectrum Disorder, specifically Asperger’s Syndrome. He is fascinated by color pencil art and water color painting. His passion in visual and written work is in detail, and he’s never found the Devil in them. He would like an experienced writer and a visual artist to mentor him.

Forced Out by Juan Meza

Forced Out

Forced out
Out of my land
Out of my people
Out of my friends.
Of the constitution
Of my songs
Of my hair
My sweat
My family
My Salmon

Juan Meza is a 39-year-old poet, Shakespearean actor, and a member of Artistic Ensemble, an abstract movement company. To Juan, community represents hope for a life that matters. He would like an experienced poet and an experienced stage performer as mentors.

Philadelphia, by Eel C. Jesus


Pt. I

Some hopes and dreams are like trees. Across our seasons, they blossom, sway, lose all their leaves, and stand bare, lacking – something. Yet for the most part they are sturdy; deeply rooted within that quiet purity I’ve held so tightly, the innocence we’ve lost but try desperately to touch again. Meanwhile, other hopes and dreams are like breaths. We bring them in and for a short time, they give us reasons to strive, to achieve a greater meaning, even an answer to the question of “Why do I want to be more than what life’s given me?” But we can’t hold these types of hopes and dreams for long, and like breaths, we let them go. They enter the world, either gone, lost, but mostly, not realized – not known, except to us alone. Perhaps, most of our hopes and dreams were never truly meant for us. Instead, their purposes are meant to serve others.


11.30 p.m.

“The nights are never pitch black here.” Eel whispers to himself. He wants to hide from the world, but not the type of hiding that he’s been doing this far. His hiding behind half-smiles and pleasantries have gotten tiresome. He’s tired. He longs to disappear, to exist in a space and time where all his feelings stop, but the lamp on the walkway shines too bright on his reality. He’s had about 60 minutes of sleep in the past forty-eight hours, and he’s convinced that the worst part of being human is feeling.


2:00 a.m.

Pictures are playing themselves through Eel’s thoughts again. Old hopes, current dreams, worries – all scrambled black and white, each an inkspot atop the other. He feels the heaviness of them pull at him. Now, he’s focused on an inkspot, a smudge in time – frozen beautifully. It’s him, it’s Cuttle, it’s that treehouse, it’s a brother’s love, and it’s perfect. He wishes he could live there, but he’s here, and Cuttle, Cuttle’s where people go after. Eel’s eyes water and their wetness grounds him in his present. He knows he’s teetering on the edge of something – someplace he doesn’t want to be. He’s scared.


6:00 a.m.

He hears himself breathing. His ears have been full of himself lately. His hands are trembling, so he reaches into the shelf and pulls out the source of his anxiety, an envelope. Inside are a letter and a photograph. The letter gives a date, July 4th, and information about the people in the picture. The photo is of a family: a man, his wife, and two boys. Eel things the picture was taken within the past year. The family is standing in front of what looks to be their home. They are smiling, but the redness of their eyes tells a different story. He can’t look at them anymore.


6:30 a.m.

Eel hasn’t looked forward to today and he hasn’t wanted today to come, nonetheless, today is here. The family from the photograph will be here soon. They want to know him, but not like how potential friends want to know one another. They want to know him as how Cuttle knew him. He’s scared all over. His stomach hurts. He wants to throw-up, he almost throws-up; he wins this time. He splashes water on his face, rinses out his mouth, splashes water on his face again before he reads the mirror’s thoughts.

Today’s going to happen, so put on your great half-smile, give them some gentle words, and they’ll go away.

He truly believes they will.


7:00 a.m.

The man from the photograph’s name is Dolph Finnigan, his wife is Dora. Dolph is a Lieutenant in the military, Cuttle’s Lieutenant, and Dora is a school teacher. They are fortyish. The boys, Marlin and Seth, are young. Marlin is eight years old going on nine. He just completed the fourth grade and is vocal and outgoing. Seth turned eleven two months ago. He’s shy, loves music and reads a lot. Seth’s parents are worried about him because they don’t think that his quietness is a phase. Eel roughly runs the palm of his left hand over his forehead several times. He’s trying to push Cuttle out; Cuttle always gets in his head and he never comes in alone.


9:00 a.m.

The Finnigan’s arrive. It takes Eel a while before he can find the courage to watch them from the window. They look exactly like their photograph except that Dolph is broader in the shoulders than Eel expected, and Seth seems smaller. He realizes too late, that he shouldn’t have agreed to meet them. He wants to back out, but he quietly rehearses how he’ll greet them and runs through a few different hello’s.

“Dad! Dad! Look at him, Dad. He has the same chin, and his eyes, Dad, they’re Cuttles’. Look at him Dad, Look! He’s just smaller, like I’m small” the little one, Marlin, drags Eel out of his daze. Eel is embarrassed, he failed to greet them properly and now struggles even to make eye contact.

“Hello.” Eel says. This family was a part of his brother’s life, and now, they’ve come to be a part of his. Eel doesn’t want them because he breaks things, that’s his M.O., but these people are already slightly broken. He remembers the picture, and he can see the redness of their eyes spoke the loudest truth. Eel is a mix of emotions and can’t find words for fear he’ll cry. He’s going to cry.

“Don’t start, please, we’ve only just stopped ourselves,” Dora says as she reaches out to touch Eel. Eel stiffens.

“Hello Eel, this here is my family, Dora, Seth, and Marlin.” Dolph gestures toward each.

Eel shakes his head slightly and blinks four times rapidly to clear his head. Pointing to the other side of the table, he says, “Let’s sit down. You all have to sit on that side. I have to sit over here, it’s policy. Thank you for coming. I’m grateful to meet you all.” It’s the truth he hears, and he’s relieved. He lingers a bit, just enough to let the truth soak up the sourness on his lips.

“You’re here, that speaks to the love you have… This isn’t an easy place to come…” Eel’s words softly fall off their trail as he sees his room clearly for the first time. It’s a living room and it doesn’t belong here. It’s a living room, in that, it reminds those here of what’s worth living for it’s a living room, but it’s full of everything everyone is living without. He can’t stand this room.

“Coming here isn’t a hassle, I want you to know that,” Dolph says with conviction. “We-“

“Lt., can – can you tell me how it happened?” Eel doesn’t want condolences or sentimentalities. He’s sick of waiting. He wants to know how because the how’s have been exhausting his imagination.

“What do you know” Dolph replies. “How much do you know?”

With as much steel as he can muster to mask his irritation, Eel answers, “Our family’s still grieving, so we haven’t sat down together to talk. Angelo, he’s one of your guys, right?” Dolph nods, “Well, he came to see me two weeks ago, but he still couldn’t talk about it. He’s only where he can tell me how the weather was. Plus, he just wanted to hear about a conversation Cuttle and I had. I think he needed that.”

“Me and my family want to hear about the same conversation. Your brother was who he was because of it. You must know that by now. I asked Cuttle, once, how did he get to be the way he was? If my boys turn out like Cuttle, I know I’ve been a good father. Anyway, he looked up to you. He asked me to come with him to see you, said that you’d tell me. I realize now that I should have come then.” Dolph says with eyes glazed in memory and a voice full of could-haves.

Eel hates that tone, but the look is worse. The look is what haunts. It’s the reason behind him putting on a new face every day.

“You’re here now. I feel like I’ve known you all for some time. Cuttle talked about Marlin and Seth all the time when he came. Your boys were his life. I’ve known them since they were babies.” Eel allows himself a quick glance at the boys, but he doesn’t make eye contact. He doesn’t linger. He can’t let his face crumble; it’s his last one.

Marlin barely lets Eel finish before he says, “I’ve known you too, since I was smaller. I’ll be nine soon and ten after that. Cuttle even built me a treehouse like the one you two built. It’s even half-way up the tree…”

The image of that treehouse pulls Eel away. For a moment, he’s fourteen again, the world and life is less complicated. One of the Finnigans is talking in the background. He’s unable to make out the words. Right now, he’s content with hammering nails into the oak tree in his father’s backyard. He knows he can’t stay there and forces himself to leave.

“Eel, Eel, I can send you pictures of my treehouse if you’d like. Would you like that?”

Marlin asks in the manner of a kid who isn’t used to being ignored.

“Yeah, yeah little buddy, that’ll be great. I can’t wait to see it,” Eel says. Marlin is smiling, and it’s a real smile. Eel wonders how long has it been since this little boy last smiled and meant it. Eel’s heart sinks with realization because he knows the exact date and time like he knows his own name and birthday. A piece of his face falls to the floor. The sound of it crashing fills the place and he watches, silently, as the tile floor drinks that part of him. Silence.

Dolph, uneasy with a hint of panic, fills the space. “Eel, I really want to tell you what happened, I really do, but my boys, they only know the basics, and I remember everything so clearly. Can I tell you another time, when it’s just you and me? I can come back tomorrow while the boys are visiting your mother. Is that okay with you?”

Eel nods in agreement outwardly. He tells himself that the Lt. has his reasons, but he can’t help but feel cheated. They’ve all come to hear about a conversation between two brothers. They’ve come one after the other, and they leave with a piece of Eel, but none of them has left a piece of Cuttle behind.

Eel looks at the clock on the wall. The hands read 1:08 p.m. and he wonders how much time has passed in silence. He remains quiet; gathers himself, and lets his eyes search for a spot on the floor. It’s better if he doesn’t look at them. He sees that there’s a crack in the tile; it’s filled with grime. He’s found a place to start and he jumps in.

“I was nineteen, and Cuttle was fifteen. He came with our dad to see me. At the time, I’d only been here three years. Growing up here is different, sometimes you only have yourself as a friend and parent. Because of that, there’s a lot of introspection, but growing up alone, as Cuttle had to do, is its own struggle.

“He had questions he needed answered and believed that I could give them to him. He’s always been like that. You all know him to be like that – driven, yet thoughtful. He said to me, never could he have imagined that I would be here, caged. He said that I had a free and open spirit and that this was not a place for me, it wasn’t a place for him. My first thought was that he was going to tell me he wouldn’t come see me anymore. Instead, he said that he looked up to me and wanted to be like me, not the acts I’ve done or who I pretended to be on the streets, but the person I am for him and my family.

“I think he was scared because, one, he didn’t want to end up like me, and two, he couldn’t understand why I could, would, or want to live behind two such opposite identities. Maybe, this was a point in his life where he was lost in-between who he wanted to be and what others wanted. Whatever his reasons for being scared, he found himself at a young age which is amazing. Anyway, he asked me, why or what did I believe was the cause for my being here?

“That’s a heavy question for a fifteen year old, but the nature of our relationship was that I would give him the truth, and the truth was the least I could give for abandoning him.

“Cuttle’s question, it’s the one I live with every day and I told him as much. But to answer his question, I said, when I look at myself, I can honestly say that I have never been satisfied with myself. I didn’t believe that who I was, was enough. So. I couldn’t see all that I had – all that I am. I couldn’t grow my potential or open my mind to possibilities.

“I could see that he was a little off balance with where my explanation was going. So, I told him that to have a relationship on a truly honest level, both parties had to share an openness and willingness to accept the truth about one another, and this meant putting scars, secrets, and even insecurities out in the open.

“Cuttle told me, sometime later, that this was when he realized that acceptance had nothing to do with making sense of someone or something. That’s another story.

“I told him, my not having a place within myself that I could love is why I questioned myself constantly. I felt broken and didn’t know how to fix myself. Yet, the years isolated from the world lets a person piece themselves together. When I got down to the few pieces that I couldn’t understand or maybe didn’t want to understand. I realized that my patter was that I found fault in everything.

“We are all on the same timeline – one timeline, I told him. We’re given one precious life, just one. One to live, one to give, one to experience, and one should be, is enough. We should be enough, if not enough for others, at least enough for ourselves. This is a hard lesson that I’ve forced Cuttle and others to learn alongside me. And although I never told him outright, my wish for Cuttle was that I didn’t want him to ever know these places within ones’ self. Even at fifteen, he still had that boyish innocence. I didn’t think I could protect him. So, I could only tell him that these ugly places exist and to be aware of them.

“I told him that today, when I look at people out in the world, I say to myself, I really admire those who can have and see the value of one because they truly know how precious one life is. My hope, my one dream, I told him, was to be one of those people who can truly see the value in one.

“The rest of our conversation was Cuttle asking me about how he should deal with doubt and uncertainty, all of which, I didn’t have an answer for, but he also asked me, how would he know when one was enough? I said that I didn’t know myself because I only knew that one should have been enough when I lost the one of almost everything I was given, and by then, it was too late for me. He said then that he would find a way to know and he’d share it with me someday. One would always be enough for him was his promise because one is a whole and one can sustain. So, yes. He was always like that – a man grown at fifteen, maybe younger. He had to be.

“From fifteen till what happened in the Kandahar Province is a blur. Cuttle chose a career, dedicated himself to that life, and we saw each other less and less. Four times a year until he turned eighteen, then once or twice a year when he was on leave, but we wrote one another. His life became lines on paper.”


2:30 p.m.

Eel finally hands the table over to silence and notices that the Finnigans are crying. He sees Cuttle’s life in every tear, each sniffle, and wipe; their conversation, so long ago, displayed across each face. His brother had found a way to know when one was enough and this family along with every person before them, are the result. Eel finds himself back in the place he doesn’t want to be, he doesn’t want to be human right now.

Eel put one hope…

“Your brother, Cuttle, found his was Eel. His friends, his extended families, we all loved him for it. He could drink one beer. He could own one car. He loved one woman, but he didn’t have just one life. He was a part of all of our lives. He was our lives…” Dolph’s voice fades away as Eel phases in and out of reality.

…one dream into the world…

Your brother was so special, so gentle. He gave everything – himself, he gave us that too. That’s why we’re here Eel. He gave us you. The someday Cuttle talked about sharing with you is here, with us. You see that right? Right?…” Dora is trying to hold Eel in the present, but she’s losing ground.

…and Cuttle caught it, nurtured it, lived it, and now, that one hope – that one dream, Cuttle has returned it.


Eel C. Jesus lives and writes in Northern California.

Notes From An American Prisoner: An Ode To Fyodor Dostoevsky by Brandon Loran Maxwell

Notes From An American Prisoner: An Ode To Fyodor Dostoevsky

I am a loving man, soulless by disposition; a forgiving man, vindictive by circumstance. I am an innocent man, but I am a monster. Another might say I am two men, or even say I am no man at all. But what another says is of little consequence. Do I believe good exists in the world? Not proportionately to the injustices of the world. I admit, however, of the good that does exist, I have experienced very little, and understand even less.

“Guilty!” Pack ‘em in like sardines. Place ‘em on the back burner for a seven-year stint. Just let our children pick up the mess come release date. That is what fuels the sheep I count.

Admittedly, I live one tyrannical hour at a time because anything more is a trivial pursuit, a hypothetical ship docked on Generality Island. That you will probably never understand, though.

What? What do you mean you’re not rehabilitated? You freeze all night, starve all day—get raped in the showers—and you’re still not fixed? Something must be wrong with you.

“Guilty!” Seven more years ought to do the trick. Maybe our children’s children will have better luck. Better yet, maybe we need another prison—where’s that Senator who owes me a favor? It’s so damn expensive to consult my conscience these days—why bother.

I am a man without a name because an eight-digit number suits me perfectly. Indeed, I live a simple life, here, comfortably, in the palm of the state. It’s kind of like a vacation—if your idea of retreat is Dante’s Inferno.

Sure, I used to care about identity, individuality—but those cares have long since adjourned. “Before your mother was born,” as McCartney might say. Is he still around?

They say when you’re exposed to something for too long, you become desensitized—so now I beg the judge to keep me. I live here and I’ll die here. Anything more is just a fairytale, a figment of incarceration. And surely I am stronger than that—right?

I used to work at a little movie theatre on the corner not far from here. It’s not there anymore so don’t look for it. I loved the solitude. But I loathed the decline of American cinema. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

I used to watch On the Waterfront over and over again. I could relate to Brando. He told it like it was. “You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Nobody said it quite like Brando—not even Bogart.

I used to hate it when customers came to the counter asking for popcorn. Most of the time, I managed to muster up a passable smile. But inside I secretly fantasized about gouging their eyes out.

Their eyes would almost certainly serve a more purposeful existence on the black market somewhere—perhaps in India—in the skull of “a thinker,” a Maharishi. Besides, Brando wouldn’t have stood for this type of nonsense. Why should I?

Sometimes I feel like Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The entire world has changed to color, yet here I am still living in black and white—lounging in the past. Thus, I am fairly apathetic.

Admittedly, I was lying just now when I said “I feel like Norma Desmond.” Perhaps I did it out of dejection—who really knows. A conversation is just nice to engage in sometimes. Moreover, as we do not have much in common, one of us must lie to keep the conversation going—don’t you agree?

The anticipatory footsteps of my neighbor serenade me every evening just before dinner, almost like a lullaby. He has very little space to walk, but he walks proudly. Maybe it’s the hunger. Maybe not. The body will do strange things to a man—a loving man, soulless by disposition; a forgiving man, vindictive by circumstance.

You must imagine, undoubtedly, freedom lovers, that I want to amuse you. But you are mistaken. I can tell you earnestly that I have many times tried to become a good person. But I am not equal to the task.

Good cannot exist in a man of meager but ambitious means. That is, a man in the twentieth-century must, and morally ought to be, preeminently a soulless creature.


Author’s Note: I’ll never forget the first time I read the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. I was a student in my first year of college when a professor handed me a copy of his 1864 classic “Notes From The Underground,” and asked me to write a critical analysis. The book was unlike anything I had read. Compared to other writers, Dostoevsky rang unapologetic. His voice experimental. His life tragic and complex. His undertones introspective and seditious.

He wrote about what he knew. At just 28 years old, Dostoevsky had been sentenced to prison and barred from writing by the government for affiliating with an intellectual group that discussed antigovernment activities—an experience that forever shaped him. On his incarceration in Russia, Dostoevsky would later write, “I consider those four years as a time during which I was buried alive and shut up in a coffin.”

I immediately related. Before college, I also had spent time in jail and glimpsed into the abyss of human despair. So with Dostoevsky in mind, I began sifting through old poems and essays I had sent to family members from jail. Eventually I found an old poem I hadn’t finished, re-worked it to match the experimental prose in which “Notes From The Underground” was written, and submitted it to my professor. The essay went on to gain national recognition in the category of personal essays and memories by Writer’s Digest.

Brandon Loran Maxwell is a Writer’s Digest prize-winning essayist, contributor at Bold Global Media, and speaker at the Foundation For Economic Education. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrandonLMaxwell

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 sigh 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: Bryan 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.