Building a Community of Gift-Givers


As part of the Art for Justice project, we have included local openers representing organizations in Tucson and Southern Arizona that are working to address issues around mass incarceration. We are proud to continue including these local organizations in a digital format. Our next Art for Justice reading is on Thursday, May 13 at 5 PM with poet Reginald Dwayne Betts. Click here to learn more.

Lots of people ask what got me through 10 years in prison.

They ask because I came out a better person than I went in. And they ask because I’ve spent the majority of my time since my release fighting against mass incarceration, organizing my community and lobbying lawmakers to pass sentencing reform and end mandatory minimums. The implication in their questions being: if mass incarceration is such an injustice and the experience of prison so traumatic, how have I and so many others avoided going back and rebuilt lives of purpose and meaning on the outside?

To be clear: it’s despite prison, not because of it, that I am who I am today. And for me, that’s only thanks to the magic that happens when any of us puts pen to paper.

It’s not hyperbole to say that I wrote my way out of prison. I spent most of my days inside writing bad essays and even worse short stories that will, thankfully, never be published and thus, never read by anyone but me. I bought empty grade-school composition books from the prison commissary and I filled them with half-finished screenplays. I wrote articles with a dull golf pencil about life in prison (not an oxymoron) that were occasionally printed in a barely-read prison newspaper. And I wrote letters. So many letters. Some sitting on my bunk with my back against a battleship gray, metal locker. Some written in the chow hall as friends built elaborate rhymes to go with their beats. Or outside in between workouts on the rec field, keeping my head down and my eyes on the page. And others written in the prison library surrounded by paperback romance novels, seated in a plastic chair at a folding table next to someone crafting an appeal for his freedom.

When guards reduced me to a six-digit number and jaded, hate-filled white boys told me to keep my mind in prison, I wrote to get out. To exist on a plane of consciousness high above the prison, outside the gates. Writing on the inside was meditative and transformative, and it saved me.

I’m sure the friends and family who received my letters were daunted by the pages and pages of handwritten stream of consciousness they felt obligated to read week in and week out. Though sometimes I’d get something published in a magazine or a journal, my writing in prison was really ever only for the benefit of two parties: me and, more importantly, the people I’d harmed in the free world.

It was only through writing that I gained empathy for those who I’d harmed and became self-aware enough to stop. I literally made a list of bad behaviors; that list was the first thing I wrote inside. And over the years, I went back to it, revised it, and worked on stopping each behavior, a doable feat only because I’d reduced each behavior to black and white and taken away its power over me. Each time I wrote a letter to a pen pal, I learned something new about myself and how I’d ended up where I was. I unlocked doors to certain painful memories I’d repressed, things I needed to remember in order to forgive myself, make sense of all that pain and trauma, and see that I was worth the struggle to make amends.

Because of these experiences and the volumes of experiences of other incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers, in 2018 I founded the free Poetry Center workshop, Free Time: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers, about a year after my release from the Arizona state prison. I wrote a lot inside, and I was never short of people on the outside who seemed eager to hear from me, including some very talented writers. But my experience there was the exception; most men inside had few bridges to the free world. Free Time, thanks to support from the Art for Justice Fund, has been that bridge for scores of incarcerated writers across the country.

Each month, the people who volunteer their time to this project – so many of them accomplished writers themselves – attend my workshop (which returns to an in-person gathering in August), learn about people living in prison and the system that cages some 2.3 million people in prisons nationwide, and they counsel one another on how best to support incarcerated writers. They solicit feedback for their incarcerated friends, pitch literary journals on their behalf, and they’ve created a writing challenge (with cash awards) that’s about to return for a second time. Many of our incarcerated friends will be published here on the Poetry Center website (as they were in 2020), and this year, we’ll host a public reading of selected works in celebration of their resilience.

Though the Art for Justice Fund’s support isn’t infinite, we’re able to continue Free Time for the foreseeable future. I’m so thankful to the Poetry Center for seeing how important Free Time is to not only incarcerated writers but to the volunteers – who I interchangeably refer to as “mentors,” “writing partners” and “friends” to people inside – continuing to show up for yet another Zoom meeting the last Saturday of every month, patiently dealing with prison mailrooms and arbitrary rules and censorship in prisons all over the country. I don’t think it’s an overstatement that the friendships built with Free Time mentors are the most stable, reliable relationships that many of our incarcerated friends have ever experienced.

And that’s why we need so many more of them.

I asked some of our veteran mentors to articulate their experiences since joining Free Time, in order to 1) validate this project and 2) hopefully recruit more of you. What I got back from my query is enlightening and inspiring, and I hope many of you reading this will promptly reach out to me and ask me for the date and time of our next Free Time workshop. (You can also view upcoming workshop dates on the Poetry Center's calendar.)

Ellen, who joined Free Time shortly before the pandemic, explained to me that the workshop “has really pushed me to challenge my own understanding of crime, compassion and redemption. I’ve always been anti-prison,” Ellen said, “but getting to know people who have been convicted of serious crimes and being able to witness their humanity really changes things.”

The incarcerated woman Ellen corresponds with is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. “So I see my role, primarily,” Ellen told me, “as serving as a connection to ‘out here’ and a form of entertainment for her, as well as helping her get her work published. She’s a wonderful writer. I want to be a reminder to her that she’s a whole person.”

Bill, who’s been writing three men on the inside since almost the beginning of this project, responded to me that, “What I’ve done might count for nothing, as far as the greater public will ever know, but I have proceeded on the assumption that the ultimate point of my involvement has been, first and foremost, to improve in some small way the lives of the men I’ve been corresponding with.”

One of our volunteers not only writes multiple people inside, but she also volunteers her time mentoring new mentors. Traci has been a constant presence in Free Time since 2018; she helped coordinate our first writing challenge. When I asked volunteers in a mass email to tell me about their experiences, Traci “replied all” with a message from one of her incarcerated friends:

“Just wanted to remind you how much your letter-writing means to all of our friends inside. Bob, my friend in a Colorado facility, wanted me to pass along a message to all of you. It was the last paragraph of his most recent letter to me:

‘Once again, thank you for writing. Your letters always make me feel connected to the outside. Connected in a way that is difficult for anyone who has never done time to understand. A light. A reachable light in a dark place. Like, just the reminder that you give that there is still a beautiful world out there to return to. Ugh... words are hard right now. :)  Hope. Maybe that's the word. Please pass this on to anyone else in your program that is corresponding with [people in prison]. Whether they say it back or not, you make a difference. Thank you.’”    

Over the past year, David, another Free Time mentor, has been especially helpful in ensuring that incoming mail from our incarcerated friends gets to his fellow Free Time mentors, facilitating delivery at the Poetry Center one day a week. David told me he knows how important the exchange of mail is to people inside because his incarcerated friend, Antonio, described it after some of David’s letters to Antonio failed to reach him:

“Mail call is… difficult to describe accurately. For me personally, mail is the most difficult part of the day. I don’t like how my stomach seems to sink in on itself as it listens to the sound of the [guard’s] boots coming closer down the run. Or how it stays that way all night if there’s no envelope with my name on it. 

Basically, when the [guard] walks at 7:30 with mail, there is not a single [person] who isn’t hoping he stops by their cell and slides an envelope through the door, proof that someone knows I’m alive, that someone cares enough to send me a treasure I can cherish for the gift it is.”

I’m so grateful to David, Ellen, Bill, Traci, and the dozens of others who have contributed all they have to this project over the past three years. Our mailing list of incarcerated writers we’d like to reach, however, is more than 2,500 names long. The Free Time workshop needs more gift-givers. If you have free time to spare, you can join us for our next virtual workshop on Saturday, May 29, at 11 a.m. Email me at and I’ll send you the Zoom link.

Joe Watson is a formerly incarcerated writer and media professional who works as the communications director for the Pima County Attorney's Office in Tucson, Arizona. Since his release from prison in 2017, Joe has advocated for sentencing reform and greater access to reentry resources, organized around prosecutorial reform, and led a free monthly workshop at the Poetry Center that enlists community members to help mentor incarcerated writers.