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.
Today, we are thrilled to present the Fiction Winners.
snapping turtle jack (1st place)
BY Jack Copeman
If you didn’t already know this, here’s a quick axiom to digest: Live in a toxic environment, such as a prison, long enough and slowly but certainly the place turns you hard, ugly, miserably greenish-yellow, and sharp around the edges. Inside and out. Converting once healthy human cells and basic ideals and values into a vile biological abomination fit only for tracking and release into a putrid swamp. Here is the story of one such snapper, having approached the end of his 30-50 years indeterminate sentence—and what he’s like now—after so many decades sitting on the bottom. Enjoy.
A Parole Board Interview
“This is a violation of due process! My constitutional rights are being trampled! And I see the way you’re looking at me. This is your fault! I’m a by-product of systemic mass incarceration and human rights abuse!” yelled the unrestrained prisoner, currently in the process of being subdued.
“Stop resisting, dammit! Put your flippers behind your back—now!” Commanded the burly corrections officer. As he struggled to gain control of the considerable sized ‘preptile.’ (The official term for morphed prisoners dramatically altered by prison.)
“Mr. Jackson! Calm down! Get control of yourself! Quick, splash him with pond water, that usually helps,” said the Chairman of the Board. Pointing toward a five-gallon bucket filled with stagnant brown water and duckweed. While the other members either cringed behind him or leapt for the exit. Thinking with their feet and getting out of harms way was always a good plan when employed in the violent realm of corrections. Leaving the funkiest behind to deal with the mess was true for any mindless hierarchal organization; the department fully embracing this elitist view.
“First, the courts appoint the most incompetent motherfucker ever to misrepresent me. Thereby ensuring that I will get duly sentenced outside of my guidelines range. Then I’m warehoused behind that filthy gray wall at Michigan Reformatory. A place filled with cockroaches, rats, and illiterate sociopaths all strung out on psyche meds. Finally, I survive all that and the Great COVID Exposure Program too, only to make it here! In front of you! To learn that I don’t have a ‘liberty interest’ to be released on my minimum outdate?! That’s fucking preposterous!” Still struggling with the guards trying to pin him down. A task nigh impossible for a creature able to withdraw his limbs into a hardened carapace. As more guards came scrambling into the room, thereby getting drenched in the melee of trained judo and buckets of tepid swamp juice being flung.
“Aghhh! The fucker is biting me! Get him off, oh shit—help! Shoot him! Shoot him!” screamed a terrified officer.
“Taser don’t work on any of them with twenty-plus-years,” answered another. “Quick, grab that prybar!” The situation was developing as rapidly as the convict; more turtle than anything else at this point.
Jack began to power crawl toward the Chairman with no less than three guards clinging to his hardened back, like leeches. (The poor officers would later develop PTSD and a new found appreciation for the Capitol cops after this experience.)
Still crawling but spitting out the gashed and gushing arm, “I endured all that your system has done to me. All my hair falling out. Nails growing exponential. My chin disappearing into my throat; which then lengthen and stretched beyond all normal limits to resemble something comparable to a tailpipe! Not to mention that I’ve left the up-right race and gone backward on the evolutionary chart. I’m a veteran for fuck’s sake! Is this how America treats its vets?! Is this acceptable to you?”
“Mr. Jackson, are you ready to hear the rest of what I was trying to say?” Speaking in calm and soothing tones to the giant creature. Fascinated by the sheer size and the beady eyes of such a primordial beast. As the stinky water began to have an observable effect.
Stopping. “Okay, what is it?”
“I said that you don’t have a liberty interest to be released on parole upon reaching your earliest release date. It is, in fact, law upon which the Board holds discretion until expiration of your entire sentence. Which simply means that we can hold you until serving your maximum—if warranted to do so. Say for…recalcitrant behavior resulting in misconducts. This would prompt an adverse decision. Do you understand?”
“Yes.” The fog of rage beginning to clear as rays of insight began to shine through the haze.
“Good. Up to this juncture, your record is decent. Having earned a degree, worked and maintained institutional jobs, stayed out of trouble.” Now looking at Jack’s open beak of a mouth, the jaw hinging low like an elevator headed for the ground floor. The Chairman continued, “That with further demonstration of model behavior, we were going to recommend a pending release in 30-days.”
“No shit?” Jack muttered. Astounded. About to collapse.
“Absolutely true.” And with that, the Chairman picked up the prisoner’s commitment file, turned and walked straight out the door.
Which is the problem with being trapped in hard things (situations, lives, cells, shells, heads, etc.), being that you should always wait until it’s your turn to speak, listening intently in the meanwhile. Then formulating an appropriate response based on facts and not feelings. Something many prisoners fail to grasp.
Judge Curtis Dawkins, author of The Graybar Hotel says this about "Snapping Turtle Jack": A story that takes the truth of how cantankerous old-timers end up a step further, to a Kafka-esque extreme. Full of great details, fluid and believable dialogue, with a humorous yet accurate twist. It is also a gentle critique on how to listen before speaking. This writer not only pays attention to the system and those around him, he has a rare talent for turning the watching into words. An impressive feat.
fb post (2nd place)
BY Wayne Snitzky
I found this message tied to a balloon, anybody know who this is?
If human eyes are reading this… I might just believe in miracles again. I attached this note to a balloon and let it fly away. Let me explain why someone reading this might just count as a miracle.
The person that is writing this has been sitting in prison for over twenty years. Every single time I have placed a letter in the outgoing mail I get the sense that I am essentially dropping a message-in-a-bottle into the sea. As the years sitting in a cell wore on, more and more friends faded away. I guess that is just the nature of life. Plus, I know being friends with someone in prison is extra taxing. Few relationships anywhere last a lifetime. But it is not lost on me that every single friendship of mine that has ended all ended the same way, with me sending a letter that never gets a response. Maybe that’s just part of the punishment for my crime.
I read somewhere that only a small percentage of letters tossed into the sea are ever recovered. But some are found many decades after they were given to the ocean. That could mean that most letters are still floating around out there, waiting to come ashore. The reality though, is that those words scribbled on a piece of paper, a time capsule of a moment in someone’s life, met their fate at the bottom of the ocean, or smashed against a rocky shore. But maybe, just maybe, there is still a chance for that paper to be found and the writer’s shaky script to see sunlight again.
A message in a bottle is often sent just to learn the science behind currents. Where will this bottle end up? But every bottle also has the message: See me. I exist. I wrote this message on this day. Please read my words because when you do, I am seen again.
Even though so few messages are ever found, I believe it is still worth sending them. I have a family member with whom I have very little contact, but every so often they turn back up in my life. We end up exchanging a few letters, the first one I receive picks up the conversation where the last one ended months or years earlier, as if no time had elapsed. But inevitably, I send a letter, and get no response. At least not for quite some time. This is our pattern.
Which brings me to this letter. All this thinking I have done over the years about messages in bottles, I knew I’d never get the chance to actually send one. My cell is many miles from any serious body of water. But, the fates smiled on me and I got my chance, sorta. My prison held a My-Child-and-I day event, with balloons. So I got one, [cough cough], on the black market. This can be my ‘bottle.’
Just quickly writing this note before I give it to the sky gives me hope that maybe, just maybe, all those last letters I have sent over the decades may still be floating around out there, to be found someday in the bottom of some drawer or box in the basement. That maybe, just maybe, my shaky script will see the light again and an old friendship can be rekindled.
If these words are ever read again, maybe I can be more than the worst thing I ever did. Maybe my life can find greater meaning than my crime.
If that day ever comes, I’ll still be sitting here, waiting for a response.
Wayne Snitzky attached this note to a balloon in Marion, Ohio and gave it to the wind on September 15, 2019.
Judge Curtis Dawkins, author of The Graybar Hotel says this about "FB Post": The subject, communicating with those outside of prison, might be the perfect carceral metaphor for our times. Beautifully written and sadly profound, 'FB Post' explores a loss no prisoner ever expects: the slow fading away of the world outside of the walls. Like words sent in a bottle, the message transcends its world, as evidenced by a sentence from the story: 'Please read my words because when you do, I am seen again.' Great story.
My only hope (3rd place)
BY David Porter
It’s late at night in this concrete jungle. Only ones up are the insects. Like the crickets that chris all through the night, and the book worms. I hate this place. It’s nothing but concrete and steel. But, I put myself here. I could have stopped, but I didn’t. My anger. My Pride. My jealousy. My daughter. The alcohol. I can still hear the tone in the judge’s voice when he sentenced me.
“Dexter Carlin,” he said in his Southern drawl. “60 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Next case.”
And just like that, I was sent to prison for the rest of my life. I should have taken the plea bargain.
Everybody says that.
Ten years later, and I still don’t remember everything that happened that night. Everybody says that, too.
“Get out!” Sara yelled, pushing me out the door. We had been married for five years, but now, she had all my clothes in plastic trash bags. “I told you the next time you came home drunk that was it!”
Funny. She drank more than I did. Only difference was, I didn’t drink at home. No sense in bringing that up now.
“I’m taking Hope,” I said, putting my foot in the door jamb.
“You’re not taking her to live on the street,” she said, shoving my clothes into my chest. “At least let me say good-bye.”
She looked at Hope covering her face. Our five-year old daughter, shaken by fear. “Whatever,” Sara said, finally.
I knelt down in front of Hope. “Daddy has to leave,” I told her, tucking her auburn hair behind her ear.
“Whyyy?” she pleaded.
“Daddy hurt mommy’s feelings again.” I looked up at Sara. “It’s only til mommy cools off.”
Hope’s hazel eyes stared into mine, as pools of tears began to form.
“Here,” she handed me her favorite doll. “Debbie will keep you safe til you get back.” “I can’t…” I said, but I took it anyway. “I’ll be back soon,” I lied.
Sara grabbed Hope, pulled her inside, and slammed the door.
I banged on that door for half an hour, then I finally gave up. Maybe I shouldn’t have given up. Maybe I should have knocked one more time. But, I left.
Two days later, I found out that Sara was with this guy, Russell.
I hate sitting here thinking how I should have worked things out with Sara. I could have stopped drinking. But, I didn’t. I guess Russell was better at one thing. Restraint. Turning on my lamp, I take out my photo album. Three pictures of Hope are the only ones in it. All sent from Mom. In the end, she was the only one to keep in contact.
I write Hope every month. I know, it should be more. But, there’s only so much I can say about prison life.
“I miss you.”
“I love you.”
“I’m making changes.”
I remembered that I had been drinking that night. A lot. I had drove to that house plenty of times drunk. So the car practically drove itself there. I imagined Russell being the father I could never be. And, I got angry.
Why didn’t the cops pull me over? Why didn’t Sara answer my texts? Why didn’t God intervene?
I had a Louisville Slugger, signed by Barry Bonds, when I knocked on the door. Russell answered. I remembered the first swing. It connected with the front of his skull. The cracking sound, like a nutcracker on a walnut shell. It still haunts me at night. I kept swinging. My rage. My pain. My hurt. The alcohol.
When I came to my senses, I was covered in blood. I was calm. I felt vindicated. I was at peace. But, all around me was chaos. Hope had seen it all.
How many apologies must I write for her to stop having nightmares about her father? What words can I say to set things right?
It’s nights like this that I just want to sleep. But, my mind is only thinking of Hope. I know it’ll be hard. But, for Hope, I can be a better man, a better father. For Hope, I’ll never touch alcohol again. For Hope, I can change right now, not later. For Hope, I can do this time.
So, for Hope, I grab a sheet of paper, a pencil, and begin. I continue to write, once a month. Letters filled with apologies and promises. For Hope…
Judge Curtis Dawkins, author of The Graybar Hotel says this about "My Only Hope": One of the most common stories of how people end up in prison, 'My Only Hope' is succinctly and poignantly wrapped in a tidy package. More importantly, the story revolves around the ones truly hurt by our guilt: our innocent children, a subject almost impossible to address because of how close they are to a writer's heart. This author accomplished the impossible. Powerful without resorting to sentimentality.