Resilience: Today & Tomorrow Fiction Honorable Mentions

Last fall, volunteer mentors who currently participate in the Poetry Center's workshop, FREE TIME: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers (part of our Art for Justice project), solicited submissions from incarcerated writers across the country to enter into our Resilience: Today & Tomorrow contest. You can learn more about the guidelines and call for submissions here. We will be sharing all winners and honorable mentions in the next few weeks, and you can find a full list of winners here. 

Read Poetry Honorable Mentions here. 

Today, we are thrilled to present the Fiction Honorable Mentions.

Mr. H 

by Randall Bagley

Knew a man serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Called him Mr. H. Wiry little fellow, well mannered, soft spoken, and always kept his state issued clothing in pristine condition. 

Every morning at breakfast time, the cell doors would open for the inmates to walk to the mess hall. Mr. H would leave out as if he were going, but instead he would keep walking towards the prisons exit gates. There was a painted red line with the words DO NOT CROSS OR YOU WILL BE SHOT, in bold red letters. He would stand a couple inches from it for a moment as if in deep thought, before turning and walking back to the cell block. 

For about six months I watched him do it everyday. One day I followed him to the fence and asked him could we talk. This is how the conversation ensued… 

“Why do you do this everyday?” I asked. 

“I’m practicing for the day they finally let me go…” 

“You have life right?” 


“So, how do you prepare for something that is never gonna happen?” 

“Hope, faith, paired with a strong mind, and a warriors spirit. Don’t quit, don’t give up, fight till you are free. You wanna’ make it home right?” 

“I am home. Judge gave me life.” 

“To survive in this place and wake up ready to face another day, you have to have hope!” “How do you hope when hopelessness done settled on this place like morning dew?” “It’s all in how you look at it. Do you believe in God?” 

“Nope! And what does that have to do with anything?” 

“Everything. I told you, you have to have Hope and Faith. Faith can be found in many places, most find it in a religious book. They have stories inside that details hardships and how people persevered through them.” 

“Yeah, but I’m not really into religious books.” 

“There’s other types of books.” 

“Why is it about a book?” 

“Books help you change your mind. Reading religious books help with faith, reading about people who went through what you went through and succeeded helps with Hope. You need both to survive this madness. Have you ever heard of Antwan Alexander?” “Nope. 

“Antwan did over a decade, came home and started a construction company that is making almost twenty-five million dollars a year now.” 

“I have life. You have life, obviously he didn’t. So how does that apply to us?” “Remember this. You have to hope that you are going to make it home. If you keep your freedom in the forefront of your mind, no matter what obstacles come your way, no matter what these people do to try to belittle you will always be able to hold your head up high and carry yourself like the man God created you to be. Read, exercise your mind and your body, eat right keep a heart filled with Hope and one day you will be free.” 

Seeing is believing.” 

“It is.” Mr. H said as he reached inside his pocket and handed me a picture. “This is me when I first came in.” 

I looked at the picture and did a double take, “this you?” I looked back and forth from the scruffy looking man in the picture to Mr. H. 

“Yep. I was a gangster turned crack head. Grew up in the Lincon Park projects in Portsmouth Virginia. I believed my destiny was to either get slaughtered in the streets like a pig or die in a knife fight in the prison rec yard.” 

“What changed?” 

“Seventeen years ago I had a conversation with someone not much different from the one we are having now. I was you. The conversation changed my life. Now I’m paying it forward. Look on the back.” 

“What is this?” 

“That’s my address. You can write me there anytime.” 

Man! He gone keep hope alive!’ I thought as the exit gates to the prison began to creek open. I looked at Mr. H who had his hand stretched out towards me. 

“Where are you going?” I asked as my mind teetered between shock and bewilderment. “Home.” He said, “You said seeing is believing right…” 

Seventeen years after being sentenced to Life, Mr. H went home. Since that day, I have been filled with Hope. No matter where you are in Life, having Hope will help you survive and have an optimistic outlook on your future.


Judge Curtis Dawkins, author of The Graybar Hotel says this about "Mr. H": A story regarding the most precious of prison commodities: Hope and Faith. The reader doesn't really know where he is, until the end--often very true of incarceration. 'Mr. H' tells us to never give up. Should be required reading for new arrivals. A prison story about faith and hope is possibly the most difficult thing to write. Period. Great accomplishment.

Cat's in the cradle

by Steven Parker

When the inmate woke up, he waited impatiently for the guards to open his cell door, almost bouncing on his toes in eagerness. In his hand, he held an unopened package of tuna that he had purchased from canteen. Quencher would be hungry and probably yowling for the inmate. 

Quencher was an especially mangy cat, half his tail gone, ending in a scarred stump, fur matted and missing in clumps. But this wasn’t unusual for a cat of Quencher’s status. You see, Quencher was a prison yard cat. That meant that Quencher had had to literally scratch and claw for survival, for every scrap of food and water. 

The inmate had also led a difficult life. Born into poverty in an economically depressed part of the city, the inmate never had the opportunity for any life beyond that of gang violence, drugs and general criminality. He quit school in his early teens and had a juvenile record to make any social worker cringe before turning eighteen. From there, he was in and out of prison for the next several years before bottoming out and, in a drug-fueled rage, had earned the life sentence he was currently serving. He was now entering the prison system a damaged and broken man, lost without any hope of salvation, angry and resentful at life. 

The first ten years of the inmate’s sentence was served with multiple disciplinary violations, assaults and rampant drug use. The inmate was well on his way to an early prison grave in Potter’s Field when something wondrous happened. That something was the appearance of a mangy cat. 

The inmate was just back from a two week stint in the ‘hole’ after getting high and assaulting another inmate. He was dopesick and, truthfully, feeling sorry for himself. He’s always tried to numb his rage and pain with life through drugs or violence, but after this last trip to the hole, it just wasn’t enough. The inmate was exhausted, both in his heart and his soul. That day, he sat with his lunch tray, uneaten because he wasn’t able to keep anything down, and contemplated what was left for him. He had no family willing to write or even accept his calls, much less visit, and he’d never been one for [ink blot] short, he felt all alone. 

Then, the inmate heard a sound he hadn’t heard on the yard before. It was the yowl of a cat. But it wasn't the sound of any kind of cat that the inmate had heard before. This sound was pitiful and full of despair. It was a sound that seemed to resonate with the way the inmate was feeling. So, when the inmate turned around and saw this mangy cat with only half a tail poking around a dumpster, looking for a way to get inside, instead of ignoring it, the inmate opened his tray, took out whatever mystery meat that they were serving in the chow hall and tossed it over to where the cat was. And so it began. 

From that day on, the inmate began to seek out that mangy cat. He’d leave out food for him if he couldn’t find him, but if he did find him, he wouldn’t leave until he was sure the cat had eaten. As for his peers, they silently wondered if the inmate had finally snapped, especially when he named the cat Quencher. 

It took almost a month before the cat had finally allowed the inmate to even pet him, but, in that time, something changed for them both. They began to heal. For Quencher, there wasn’t the same struggle to survive that it had been forced to endure. It had a steady source of nourishment now and a unique feeling of safety whenever the inmate was near. For the inmate, there was a sense of satisfaction in caring for something for no other reason than he could. So, when he noticed that the mangy cat, despite its many scars, wasn’t so mangy anymore, had begun to gain weight and overall just seemed healthier, something fractured inside the inmate began to mend. His anger, which had dominated his life for so long, had become muted. It was an incredible transformation for both cat and inmate. 

So, now, when the inmate wakes up, he has a purpose, a goal. It isn’t just to feed a prison yard cat, it’s what the inmate needs to keep going… to survive.


Judge Curtis Dawkins, author of The Graybar Hotel says this about "Cat's in the Cradle": This story finds beauty in the most unlikely of places: a mangy prison yard cat. It is a wonderful exploration of a relationship between two equally scarred creatures and the power and respect between them. An insightfully triumphant mythic tale (no pun intended). It is a brave exercise in how to find love by first giving it to another. Great job on seeing, then writing, the truth below the ugly surface!

The egg

by Dwayne Hill

As I drew my final breath of nearly a lifetime of prison air, I felt calm. I had expected death to be scary; instead, I found it to be immensely peaceful. My vision grew dark and I felt myself dissolve into the universe. Then I saw a bright light behind my closed eyelids. When I opened them, I was in a room that was bright white, had no furnishings and I was lying on what 

appeared to be a solid floor. I sat up and noticed a figure that had not been there a moment ago. “Is this heaven? Are you God?” I asked bewildered. 

The figure stared at me a moment and then smiled. 

“No, I am not what you believe to be God and this is not heaven. Think of this as a waiting room.” 

“What am I waiting for?” 

“You are waiting for your reincarnation.” He replied. 

“So the Buddhists got it right huh? Figures since I’m a born again Christian. In fact, I am kinda pissed that there is no God!” I was getting worked up now and I stood with my fists clenched. 

He laughed in a kind way, not mocking. 

“Yes and no. You are the child of our race and we are omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent. However, you must complete your training before we, the adults, allow you full access to all of your power” 

My brow furrowed in confusion. 

“You mean I’m God?” 

“Again yes and no. During some of your lifetimes, your powers have manifested by mistake. You have the power but not the training to control it. So people of that period have mistaken you for a god,” he replied. 

“So each lifetime is a training period?” I asked still confused. 

“Yes. Not only that, but also each person you meet in your lifetime is you. There is no other entity currently residing on this world. This is your training ground.” “Wait so every time I hurt, cheat or kill a person, I am really doing it to myself in a different life?” 

“Yes. Each person you help or hurt is you.” 

“Well how come I don’t remember any of this?” I asked angrily. 

“Because that is contrary to the lessons we are trying to teach you. Once you have lived every life on this planet, in roughly 2 billion earth years, you will have completed your training. You will then remember all the lessons you have learned from every lifetime. Then you will be ready to handle your full powers and take your place among our people.” 

“Oh. So I just have to go through the life of every person that was ever born or will be born?”

“Not just the people. All higher forms of life. Not insects, fish or plants. They don’t have the necessary nervous system to hold your mind. But yeah pretty much every other life form on this planet is yours to learn from.” 

“How long will we be here?” 

“Oh we were done before you woke up, but we find that having a small break between lifetimes helps the integration later. Whenever you are ready for your next journey, we can proceed.” 

“I have so many more questions. I don’t even know where to start.” 

“Well, let’s start at the beginning. Although time doesn’t affect us here, it really is pointless because you are going to forget all of it when you are born.” 

“Well I guess I am ready then. What am I coming back as this time?” 

“This time you are going to be a Chinese woman in the year 500 B.C.” 

“Oh so time’s not linear?” 

“Of course not. Time isn’t a straight line; it is always a road with many paths to take. We have the ability to travel to any part of any path or even choose an entirely different road.” “Cool. So we can pick any or all alternate time lines?” 

“Yes we can. So now, it is time for your birth. Good luck my child. Your mother and I are very proud of you and can’t wait for the next 2 billion years to be over so you can come home.” I just stood there nonplussed. This…being was my father. Too weird. 

“Well pops, till my next death. Tell mom I say hi.” I quipped. 

With that, I felt myself melt through the floor and my essence transferred into the next egg in my training.


Judge Curtis Dawkins, author of The Graybar Hotel says this about "The Egg": An inventive and imaginative exploration about what happens after death. Well-written with an impressive use of dialogue, so much so that it is basically a stage play--a very difficult feat to pull off. I could see this as a short film! This story gives hope to those doing long sentences: prison is only school, it says. Again, impressive search for beauty in what many would find meaningless. That's the job of an artist, and the author of 'The Egg' is obviously a talented writer/artist. Great job!