Category Archives: Featured Works

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.

JAMES PR PENCIL 1


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

JAMES PR PENCIL 2


Tyr’s Blessing.

JAMES PR PENCIL 3


Bensozia,  Daughter of Lilith, Knight of Ceremony.

JAMES PR PENCIL 4


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.”

JAMES PR PENCIL 5


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.

2016

by Rahsaan Thomas

I-Phones
selfies
Mass Murder

Bugattis
Trump Towers
Genocide

Rwanda
white men
Intergenerational trauma

U.S.A.
His-Lam
Drones
Terrorist

American Indians
German-Jews
African American
Japanese
Women
Homosexuals
Civil War

Black juveniles
Black women
Black men
Buffalos
extinction


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.

Nobodies

by J.S. Long


The dog at the back of the cage is snarling, head and tail low, ears back. My gag reflex momentarily kicks in, and I notice the cage floor is covered in shit. The dog bowls are turned over and stuck in crap. When the dog turns a little, I see her row of tits hung low and drained. She has scars along both sides of her head, ears got old tears that look like notches, and there’s a little grey around her muzzle.

Someone calls my name and I turn, see the front desk kid who’s got the tools of my trade in his hands. I take the oversized rubber boots, square-headed scoop, bucket, and hose from him. When he turns and faces the dog, the corners of his mouth go down and his head goes back. He’s looking down his nose at her. I hope he’s never gotten the chance to get close to her.

I’m a shit shoveler. There’s always a need for shit shovelers, never enough of them. Any town, any city, dog pound or shelter, and presto: instant job. But it’s more about working with dogs; shoveling shit is the way in.

The dog in the first cage is still growling, sometimes snarling, as I pop open her door and step in. I take my time, giving her my back, slowly scooping shit, plopping it in the bucket, letting her get acclimated. It’s been a while since this cage has been cleaned, and I wonder if all of them are the same. I feel her stare at my back as I work.

After half the cage is done, she goes quiet. She still stays as far away from me as she can, but I get her bowls and leave. I scrounge around and find some moldy dog food in a bag, in a closet marked “Food.” Finding some more in a storage room by the office, I grab a bag and start back. The kid sees me and asks what the hell I’m doing, there’s already food out.

I know I have a temper, but that knowledge doesn’t automatically give me control. The bitch who bore me married a punk who thought it his birthright to abuse his wife and kids. I ended up with a whole load of repressed crap, some of which precludes me from taking unnecessary shit from a whelp who still needs a wet nurse.

But I take a deep breath and relax, let this pimply-faced fuck slide, tell him that the other bag was empty. I don’t think he really cares, but he just has to piss on everything to show his dominance. Was I that stupid at his age?

Throwing the bag of food over my shoulder, I head back to the cages. Probably going to need more than one if I can work it so that all the dogs get some fresh food.

After washing and filling her bowls, I take them back to her cage, put them in the middle, and back off. She stares at me, her nose twitching away. She’s been abused, but she’s not aggressive. Got good stature for a mix, Rottweiler and … but she won’t eat just yet.

I pull her bowls, put them at the front, and start cleaning the rest of the floor. We maneuver like a dance, her at my back. The more I move one way, the more she moves the other until she ends up by the food. Over my shoulder, I watch her scarf it down, then slurp the water.

My knack for dogs comes from growing up in a house where dogs got the better deal. Mom’s favorite was a female German Shepherd named after the lady who gave her to us, Avon. As like begets like, Mom and Avon had a strong repulsion for males, including me. Neither allowed me to get close.

When the Rottweiler-mix finished eating, I move around to the front, so we’re back where we started. Having gotten a little closer, I see some caked-on shit in her fur. A bath is in order. It’s not like I ain’t been bitten before, but I try some commands. I have to use a bit of assertiveness, but she responds. I try some hand signals. This dog has had some training; every time she lies down, she crosses her front paws, like a Lady.

I scout about and find a bath in the back, full of garbage. After cleaning it out and making sure there’s hot and cold water, I grab a leash, head back to the cage.

To get a dog on a leash means getting close, and that requires some magic. I enter as before, only this time it’s all about being assertive but not aggressive – steady eye contact, calm demeanor, and the right body language.

She starts one way, and I block. She bares big teeth. I stay calm and steady. Of course, she has to do a little growling. She goes the other way, I block. Not long before she and I are in a corner. I know I’ve won when she lies down at my feet. I reward her with some light pets while I put the leash on. She’s still a bit shy, not sure what I want from her.

I lead her out of the cage, take my time, let her feel her way, and eventually we get to the bath. There are steps for a dog to get up and into the bath, but I’m not sure if she’s willing. She doesn’t even hesitate, climbs up and hops in.

As I wash her, she starts shaking. She’s not cold, just going through some psychological changes, but I use warmer water to rinse. In the middle of her rinse, she starts licking my face. I can’t afford another attachment right now. When I put her back, I pile on more food and watch her eat.

Cage two, three, and four: a poodle, chow mix, and a real Heinz 57, all relatively kept. Means Lady was singled out. I give them all extra rations, along with their friendly neighborhood shit shoveling service. I wonder if there’s a school for shoveling shit. Bet I could get a PhD. I dump the last of the dog food after a few more cages, mark the last cage so I’ll remember where I left off for tomorrow.

I’ve had enough for one night, and head out to get some fresh air. At the front desk, I tell the kid how bad cage one was. He gets all bend out of shape, says, “That bitch ain’t got shit coming,” and then something about, “if she ever bites me again….” Now I get the picture. I like Lady even more.

Leaving the office with the kid still muttering in his self-made turmoil, I hit the street. The first thing I encounter is the aroma of hazelnut coffee. Traffic is light, a couple of delivery trucks parked on the street. As I walk, a dude reading a newspaper and wearing sour aftershave almost bumps into me. After I pass the donut shop, I rush by an alley to avoid the stench of rotting meat.

I soon find my way next to a flowing crowd of seven and fold into it. Never want to be in front, never want to be in back ‘cause those get clipped first. From a couple of people ahead of me wafts the mustiness of a working girl that hasn’t been to bed yet. After a few blocks, I’m alone, but soon there’s one, then two, then more as the street lights get dimmer, the trash in the gutter gets thicker, and I get closer to the pad.

A block from our one-room flophouse, she rises as if out of nowhere. At first, all I see is a mane of dark hair and a lot of alabaster skin showing. Then the john steps from between two buildings, adjusting his fly. She turns and wipes her mouth with a rag, smiles when she sees me. God, what a smile. As we hug, I kiss her cheek and whisper, “I love you,” in her hear.

I ask her how things are doing, she asks why I smell like dog. I ask if she’s done for the day; she asks what I want for dinner. I grab her ass and tell her she is. She giggles and says I ain’t got enough money. This is our conversation, with no answers given. But all is well when she takes my arm, and we head home.

Two hours later, after she’s had her fix, a shower, a pot of mac and cheese, I watch her snoozing. She has a scar down the side of her nose, from a trick’s knife, who thought he got ripped off because he shot his load too fast. I love that scar, or maybe just the way she flaunts it. Her latest HIV test came back positive, but I don’t care. She cried for a little while, then went out and got a fix. I refuse to test now, what’s the use? If she dies first, I’m going to hunt down her stepdad. If I die first … who’s going to take care of her?

We met when I found her sitting on a park bench a few miles from here. She wasn’t crying, but she had some wet trails down her cheeks. I sat next to her. We did that for a while, just sat there. Then she started talking, and she wouldn’t shut up – half the time not making sense, at least not at first. But she was genuine and unassuming, and I loved her voice.

***
The next night and I’m back to shoveling shit. I give Lady some extra food, and while I watch her eat, it dawns on me. “Fuck, now I got another one.” I only clean three cages and then I’m at the front desk, like a junkie needing a fix, except I need a dog. My palms sweat, my eye ticks, and my feet won’t stop moving.

I ask the kid for the necessary paperwork, and he wants to know why I want that “mangy mutt.” I don’t say nothing, yet I feel the ache in my jaw as my teeth grind. He won’t leave well enough alone. After supposedly checking the records, he says that she’s past her date, that she’s going to be put to sleep tomorrow, that nothing can be done about it. And then he smiles.

My turn. I hop over the counter and this kid back-peddles, tripping over his own feet. But I’m right there, grabbing handfuls of his shirt, bringing us nose to nose, hoping my breath stinks.

“Listen dipshit, you either fill out the paperwork, or I drag your ass in the back and throw you in her cage. What’s it going to be?”

Seems that he’s more reasonable than either of us thought. A few minutes of him typing and I have a new member of my family. But then I wonder if the dog will outlive our AIDS. There’s also the melding of the two females. Guess I didn’t think everything through.

I head back to get her, picking up some things along the way. She needs leashes, bowls, collars (I should have brought a shopping bag, but an empty dog food bag will do), some doggy treats (mmm, those ain’t bad), and some premium canine fur cleaner.

Lady and I get to the pad and find my love still home, lying naked on the couch in front of the TV. She knows about Lady, I tell her almost everything. Not that I told her I was bringing a dog home. I introduce the two females and wait to see if any sparks fly. Nope, nothing but bonding. She gets on the floor and starts hugging and scratching. Lady just soaks it up, not quite comfortable, but getting there.

The two of them get curled up on the stained mattress in the corner. Both need to put on some weight. Sometimes I wish I could do better. It wasn’t that long ago that I was strung out, pushing the limit just to get well. Bent feelings always come unbidden, punishing me for visiting my childhood. She always knows, takes one to know one, so I have to hide within myself. Maybe next time I go out, I’ll just check out. Or maybe not.


J.S. Long lives and writes in Northern California.

Prison Renaissance Featured Artist – Emile DeWeaver

Spring 2016

Sons of Sisyphus

Have you seen Spartans train their youth away:
oak trees beneath a ridge, 200 boys
broken into 20 files, 20 pound
shields that have never touched ground, 5 pound helms
packed with wild grass to fit growing skulls. “Spaaaar-

taaaans! Choose a tree.” They move, little gods made
from levers and chains: shout, turn brace shields, one
against the back of the next and next
then lead shield meets the bark. “Now push them down!”
Teeth fuse, chains tighten
driving force against oaks firm as
citadels; feet

slip, effort spills through the sandal
soles marching furrows
in earth that deepen into knee-high
trenches
muddy from sweat and urine – “Be born!”
– pushing and pushing
‘til tree trunks smolder from hate-
filled-boy glares, pushing
‘til the links snap

drop like skin-sacks – “Stand!”
– pushing until sun
rolls, like Nazarene’s tomb door
into dusk. Dying
child – one in five die – thinks about

his shield touching ground
drags it to rest on his chest.
Breath. Somber slaves bury the slain, still-births
in the wheat fields. The living, beaten, shamble
to barracks where fathers dab watered
honey on lips exhausted. Wash, oil
sons’ limbs, polish their shields, sharpen their spears.

“Sons. We hear jackals barking.” Little
gods stir. Wind in common groans as they rise,
grey-skinned and ghastly. Shields, spears, helms, “File out!”
The night breaks Stygian surf around them.
They stride for the wheat
fields; they’ll chase Hades’ hounds
from brothers’ graves while
oaks beneath the ridgeline await
the tomb door’s rolling

*

Promethean Cycle

Open eyes, get out of bed.
Put a toothbrush in.

Eat raspberries for breakfast.
Lick ass and chew shit for work.

Drive home last.
Vomit. Drink.

Gargle mouthwash next morning.
Tylenols before breakfast.

Call in sick, eat the loss.
Park by my junior high school.

Write poems about love poems.
School security approaches.

I can smell danger, go home.
Smoke weed on plastic-covered couch. Weep.

Skip breakfast, eat nothing in the A.M.
Saline drops in the parking lot at work.

Connie from the second floor walks by my car
window. Shakes her head at my Visine.

Key her Audi.
Need to piss bad.

Google scalpels and
black holes for lunch.

Speed home full of megabytes.
Drunk, high, taking that piss.

After 5pm, fuck rabbits. Or fuck like them,
whichever presents itself most advantageously.

Home by 12.
Rinse midnight from mouth.

Jam guitar and scream.
Cops thump thump my door:

noise complaint. Put myself
to sleep. Take to alarm’s

Onkh, onkh, onkh. I smell scalpels
in a bag beneath bathroom sink.

*

Desdemona of Troy

I’m so mad at you I
face Medusa’s gaze,
turn that bitch to volcanic glass.
Floor cracks beneath my weight;
fractures ride the lightning across her face.

I’m so mad at you I
leak magma from tear ducts.
Molten granite, brighter than
love’s ire, carving
channels down my cheeks.

I’m so angry with you I
can’t walk or get
up or lie down. Soul so smoking
the Arctic Sea can’t quench it
without shattering me.

Mad because while I
quake, earth sleeps. My anger

has red roots
like a nigger slave
bleeding lava down a whipping post.

I’m so mad at you
I can fly, throat-in-noose fly,
volcanic plume high.

When I settle, I’m ashes.
Fumes and burning plastic.

*

Helen of Sidewalk

I do remember our song.
It was about pay-per-view
in hotel rooms and a plumber
who became Porn King. We listened
while you made a game
out of hopping cracks
in the pavement. You knew yourself.
You were a ballerina who never
had to pause to watch
her toes, and I sailed
far to move like that.


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.

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.