Category Archives: Essays

Philadelphia, by Eel C. Jesus

Philadelphia

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.

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.

Prison Renaissance Featured Artist: Rahsaan Thomas

Spring 2016

A Writer’s Block

I’d rather die than serve the rest of my life in prison but fear of God kept me from committing suicide. But I could provoke someone else who had nothing to lose to kill me. Standing behind my cell door, I glared through the round holes that made the door look like metal cheese. I waited for yard time, so I could go find trouble. The door whirred open on an electric track, and I broke from my cell, like a greyhound from a pen.

I’d find a bully. That way, I could tell myself he deserved whatever I gave him.

I power-walked along the second tier, past men waiting like soldiers in front of their racks for their cell doors to close. Most would wait until their doors shut before they headed outside; it was these militant acts of procedure that often separated “convicts” from victims.

“Slow down, young brother.” A man with graying hair and a young face raised his palm in front of his chest. His name was Sabir. “There’s nobody you can hurt that will get you out of prison. Maybe they will put you under the prison for a few years, but you’ll still be here.”

Taken aback that he knew my intentions, I slotted myself beside him and waited with him for his door to close.

“Why did you say that?” I asked

His gray knit kufi tilted to the side with the slight movement of his head. “I know your story. I was your story. If you let your rage rule, it will say a cage is where you belong. You have to find a way to make something of yourself no matter these circumstances. If you give up, they win.”

We carried our conversation with us down the stairs to the ground floor, through the metal detector, past guards who frisked us.

Outside, tattooed men competed on two sides of a basketball court segregated between the Blacks and the Mexicans. Men grunted through pull-ups on the side of the weight pile designated by the politics of prison for their race. On each side, men in pairs dropped to the ground and sprang to their feet doing burpees. “Can’t stop, won’t stop,” they chanted. Sweat soaked half-moons in men’s shorts as each side trained for ward with the other in heat that radiated in waves from the ground. All the yard needed was gasoline, and it would explode.

Sabir and I walked around a paved track, talking to each other but watching the yard. “Muhammad Ali’s strategy was to get his opponents pissed off so they would react in anger,” Sabir said. “Then he would pick them apart because angry men don’t think straight. That’s what many of us allow adversity to do. Pick our angry hearts apart.”

I resisted his advice. I needed anger to tamp down my fear. Maybe when I got back to society, I could overcome adversities with smiles, but whatever weakness I revealed here would follow me for my entire life sentence.

“That would have been good advice on the streets,” I said. “It’s over now.”

“It’s never over. You have to have faith, and there is no faith without endurance. We have life sentences, but we have eternity to face after that. Keep faith and Allah will reward you in paradise.”

Maybe Sabir made sense. I had already messed this life up; I didn’t want to blow the afterlife, too.

I didn’t have a religion, but I did believe in God. I went to both Islamic and Christian services, searching for meaning.

A few weeks later, I went to the beginner’s Islamic class that took place before Friday services. The teacher wasn’t present when I walked into a classroom situated just outside the Mosque. Five men sat in folding chairs facing a chalkboard with the alphabet written in Arabic letters. There was Big Cee, whose right eye looked like raw meat encased in a half-closed eyelid from an old injury. Near Big Cee, Bish – a Muslim from Toledo – stared at three men across the room who were talking about sports. Bish hated wasting time on what he considered frivolous topics while we awaited the teacher.

“How can we stop the next generation from following our footsteps?” Dreadlocks slipped from his shoulder as Bish took me in with his gaze.

Big Cee trained his good eye on Bish. “Ain’t nothing we can do from here. Nothing.”

“There’s always something we can do,” Bish said. “We did a good job destroying, now we need to figure out a way to do a good job rebuilding.”

“Homie, we’re in prison,” Big Cee said. “What we gonna build in here?”

Big Cee was in pain, ashamed of his powerlessness. I knew his story. I was his story.

“We aren’t helpless,” I said. “We can tell youngsters about our lives so those following our footsteps can see where they lead. We can show them we arne’t legends, we’re losers.”

“I’ll get right on that with my one collect call a month,” Cee said.

“We have more than that.” I’d been thinking about Tookie Williams. He wrote books from Death Row encouraging children not to join gangs. He went to prison as a gang member but was executed as a Nobel Peace Prize nominated author. “We have our stories. We can write about our lives like Tookie.”

The idea of writing wasn’t new to me. Once, a friend had suggested we write street

literature. Now, I was on fire with the idea. I couldn’t see a bright end in a life sentence, but I could see light in writing a novel. I imagined teenagers turning their lives around because of my story. I saw my family, my mother, and my sons talking about me with pride.

I wrote to explore the reasons I committed crimes. I wrote about trying to prove my worth in all the wrong ways. I wrote about the night my little brother screamed – the night a bullet burned away our youth.

I asked friends and family to type my stories for me. I hoped they’d find editors to bring my work to a professional level, but even when prison stops your world, life goes on for those outside. They loved me; they wanted to give me hope, but they didn’t have the time to chase their dreams and mine.

It took seven frustrating years for it to sink in: I was on my own in this.

I continued without knowing what to do with my stories. Writing kept me out of trouble by requiring me to create a space outside of racial politics in California prisons. Writing became the mother I finally listened to, the school counselor who wanted to save me, the friend who convinced me to seek therapy. I saw this, so I kept writing into the silence. After 13 years, the state transferred me to a unique prison, a place where the silence broke before like-minded voices.

When the bus drove me on to San Quentin State Prison’s yard, I stared out the window at a bunch of geese and seagulls wobbling side-to-side near men with PRISONER in yellow letters on their blue denim clothes. In other prisons where I’d lived, seagulls ventured onto the yard when we were in our cells. Here, they waddled undisturbed. More shocking, people from the free world walked among the men in blue, smiling and talking. What kind of world was this where geese mingled with the incarcerated and free people didn’t need correctional officers to escort them?

When I exited the bus, there was a familiar face smiling at me. He was just outside the gate that separated the receiving area from the main yard.

“Hey, what’s up,” Moe said. We’d met while doing time in California Men’s Colony. “I heard you were coming here.”

“Who are all those people on the yard?” I asked.

“You are gonna love it here. Those are volunteers that teach college classes, anger management, writing—”

“Writing classes? Where?”

“I’ll show you.”

***

After dinner that Wednesday, I walked into a small room where paintings in various stages of completion stood on easels along the walls. Mismatched chairs formed a circle around the room. Zoe, a small lady with long, reddish hair and cat-gray eyes sat among 15 men.

A bald writer with a silver Santa Claus beard read a tale of a suicide that landed the deceased in a place somewhere between Dante’s Inferno and Alice’s Wonderland. When he finished, the writers in the room offered encouragement and feedback.

“Yeah, Paul, that was a chilling tale,” Zoe said. I’d come to learn she always commented last. “I love the way you took a suicide and turned into a journey of the imagination. I … I kind of had trouble following where the character was at times.”

I soaked in the guidance she gave that night and every Wednesday night after that. I needed it. I sat in her class for months and took the constructive criticisms about other’s work and applied it in my cell to my own. One of the writing prompts Zoe handed out asked me to write about learning a lesson too late, and from her prompt came “One Bad Apple.”

After a few months, my turn to read came. For the first time, someone besides me was going to hear a story I’d written. My hands shook and stuck to the pages. My first reading involved a deeply personal story that sometimes reduces me to tears.

Paul interrupted me when I started. He spread his hand in a calming gesture. “Slow down.”

I began again: “Big brothers are supposed to protect little brothers, not the other way around.” I continued to read a fictional account of my weakest moment. I’d run and abandoned my brother who’d been shot. I’d never admitted fear in prison – you can’t do that – and I wondered if I’d suffer for revealing myself to these men sitting in a circle.

I finished.

Turk, a prolific writer from Compton raised his hand to speak. “I didn’t know you could write like that.” The room murmured approval. One by one, each writer told me what they loved about my story.

“I’m sorry about your brother, man.”

“That took courage to write.”

“Bro, I’ve spent my whole life afraid. Keep writing.”

They’d heard me.

Then came Zoe. I felt anxious for her praise because she’d earned a Master of Fine Arts. Her approval would signal that I wrote well enough to cross the barrier of prison walls.

“Yeah Rahsaan, that was a great first read….”

I grinned.


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.