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 Nonfiction Winners.
The Necessity of Community (1ST PLACE)
BY Michael J. Wiese
Building community in prison is as difficult as you’d think, but vastly more rewarding than you can imagine. Friendships forged in the hellfire of prison are durable to the extreme. I still get Christmas cards from a guy I did time with ten years ago. I haven’t seen him in over a decade, he lives a thousand miles from me, but every holiday season he writes.
Community is such a common occurrence in nature we have special words for these gatherings. A group of hedgehogs is a “prickle”, a group of jellyfish is a “smack”, and one of the most well-known groups in prison is a “gang”. These aren’t the only groups on the inside, although movies tend to romanticize gangs, they are incredibly violent, racist, and tend toward self-destruction. These types of communities were never appealing to me.
There are many other communities in prison. There are religious communities, fitness communities, and artistic communities. The community I have been a part of for these past years is the college community. This community transcends the prison environment reaching out into the “free world”. It was in academia that I found a home.
The subculture of the college community I settled into was the literature and writing group. In many ways my friends and I built this community from the ground up and looking at it now it’s quite amazing it exists at all. It still catches me off guard when a buddy shoots something like The Magus by John Fowles through the dorm bars and says, “Tell me what you think of the light/dark themes in this.”
In our spare time a group of us turn the rec yard into a forum for literary criticism. Nothing is off limits and because we share all the books we get in, we are fluent in many genres. We discuss the politics in Robert Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, the feminism of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and the real world consequences of Imprisoning Our Own: Mass Incarceration in a Colorblind Nation.
We style ourselves the convict “Inklings,” and bounce ideas off each other. One of our members has learned to translate Japanese into English and he has a passion for it I do not understand. Of course, he can’t understand why I write about prison reform and mass incarceration, so we are even.
One of our commitments to the group is helping the prisoners around us with reading and writing. An alarmingly large number of prisoners can barely do either. It started when a man, somewhat sheepishly, asked, “Can you read this letter to me?” It was from his ten-year-old daughter who promised to wait to get married until he could walk her down the aisle; he was serving a life sentence and the moistness in his eyes wasn’t from the teargas down the run.
Three months later he was sounding out his daughter’s writing, his letters as shaky as hers, but he was writing her himself. It gave him hope, writing was the spark lighting a million embers in his dark.
There is a little selfishness in the altruism though. I’ve learned I love teaching, particularly prisoners. The realization has given my life a new direction. I want to teach prisoners after I’m released from prison, and everything I do is geared toward this goal. I’ve even heard some University Prison Initiatives are hiring Ex-convicts for this exact purpose. As I lay in my rack at night waiting for sleep to take me I dream of this future. Should I start a non-profit myself? How can I build this type of community in as many prisons as possible? What type of education do I need to reach these goals? Ironically, my dreams involve me being in prison for the rest of my life.
A group of stars, a community if you will, is called a ‘cluster’. When enough tiny pinpricks of starlight are gathered into one spot they out shine any single star by far. Anyone who has seen the Milky Way stretch from horizon to horizon can testify to this.
The cluster of my prison writing community is vastly brighter than any star group. It was born, continues to be reborn, from a crucible of need. We write things we need to write. We talk about things we need to talk about. For me, my need has turned into a want. Writing has set me free and I was that kind of community for every prisoner.
Judge Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black says this about "The Necessity of Community": Every paragraph of 'The Necessity of Community' is laced with vitality and creativity, to make manifest the culture of learning that the author and his fellow travelers in prison have worked to establish. With skillful weaving of the personal, altruistic and collective benefits of participation in a college community in prison, he makes the case for the untold brilliance that exists behind the walls of America’s carceral archipelago.
What sisters do (2ND PLACE)
BY Geneva Phillips
In 2011 I was remanded to the custody of the state and subsequently sentenced to 18 years in prison. Due to Oklahomas’s long standing 85% law, I would be required to serve a minimum of 15 years before being eligible for release.
My first year at the Mabel Bassett Correctional Center, Oklahoma’s only medium/maximum facility for women, the C1 Unit manager, upon being promoted into the position, held a “town hall” meeting in which she informed us of her expectations of our behavior. She stood just inside the steel sliding door of our pod and yelled a general announcement at us.
“Under no circumstances will there be any hugging. There will be no hand holding. You will not do each other’s hair.” “Let me make myself absolutely clear,” she continued in an alarmingly loud yet monotone voice, “during the length of your incarceration you will not physically have contact with another inmate.”
It immediately occured to me that it was absurd, preposterous even, to expect people to live years, decades, sometimes even a lifetime without having the slightest physical contact with another human being. The word inhumane didn’t occur to me first, but it is the word that has struck with me longest.
This was my introduction to the carceral state, separation and segregation. Isolation weaponized into the expectation of perpetual loneliness. Insular oppression enforced and reinforced by and in the midst of a thousand other women.
If this mandate from my inception into prison had proven true, I do not know that I would have survived even the first few years. Instead I discovered that in spite of direct orders to hold themselves apart, to stand aside as another suffers, and offer no comfort, despite demands to neither give aid nor accept generosity in any form, despite the very soullessness of institutional captivity, women were unwilling to surrender their humanity along with their freedom.
Much like the glinting fences and slow concrete that surrounds our integral lives, we are joined. Joined in the days we mark off the ever changing calendar pages, in the endless and often elusive dreams of freedom. We are joined, jointed and conjoined. We share in all things and at times nothing. We share outrages and deprivation. Humiliation and hardship. We cannot disentangle ourselves from our sisters’ suffering anymore than we can untether ourselves from our own.
Years and lives become intermingled. We have met each other's families, either through pictures, letters and stories or at visit. We have interwoven our fingers, hands clasped together in countless prayer circles. Threaded together our voices and faith in both thankgiving and supplication. We have withstood heart-crushing losses, parents, grandparents, innumerable relatives passing away one by one. At times sudden, unexpected tragedies snatching away lives barely lived, a child or grandchild. Best friend or baby sister.
Where there are tears I have received and given comfort. I have been held by and also held my sisters as we’ve wept, drowning in an ocean of grief until some desolate yet traversable shoreline appears, and we purview the wreckage together, side by side, more often than not, holding hands.
We walk this thousands-of-days journey together whether hurting or healing. Only united can we face the otherwise untenable years.
I am proud and grateful to have become one of the many “Sisters of the Locked Boxes.” Some of us have left and others may not receive that opportunity but we love each other regardless. We share our straw houses, our matchstick dreams, and the small continents of our lives.
We have hope because we hope for each other. We believe both for and in each other. We owe each other nothing and would give each other anything.
So long ago, the newly minted unit manager concluded her stupefying speech with these words: “You have no friends here.”
Those are the truest words I ever heard her give voice because after a decade, I don’t have any friends here. All I have is a family and we do each other’s hair, because that’s what sisters do.
Judge Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black says this about "What Sisters Do": 'What Sisters Do' makes powerful observations of how prisons strive to harm people, right down to trying to stop the basic human experience of touch. The author reveals routine American punishment that is in fact extreme and inhumane in the most literal sense, seeking to isolate people from the most ordinary and life-sustaining human touch. Via her use of metaphor and observation, we perceive a community of women living in defiance of a system that seeks to destroy.
another great day (3RD PLACE)
BY Santonio D. Murff
“Lord, I’m thankful for all you have provided.” The sun rises on my prayers and my appreciation for being blessed to see another day. If I ask anything, it’s for the health and happiness of others.
I learned long ago that life is about perspective. My mother used to always say during times of shortage, “The man with no shoes cried, until he saw the man with no feet.” There was little crying in our home. There is even less in my home today. Everyday I find something to celebrate.
I’m thankful for this brick and barbed wire enclosed protection from the elements. It’s hard to complain about the taste of the three meals I’m provided daily when I’m conscious of the millions battling hunger everyday.
“Eat to live, don’t live to eat!” Wise words from my mother are always ringing in my heart. “Cleanliness is next to Godliness,” is her favorite.
I draw water from my toilet/sink combination, grateful for the indoor plumbing and easy access to clean water that many will never know. I add baby shampoo, thoroughly scrubbing down my home. The fresh, innocent scent conjures memories of my toddler splashing and laughing in the tub. I smile at his toothless smile and feel anew joys of yesteryears.
Yesterday I scavenged a busted hotpot. I cut off its cord, skin it, and tie the wire into a long line of tiny knots. I wound one end of the wire around a wet ball of tissue and throw it out of the highest window on the run.
“First try!” My neighbor cheer.
I wrap the other end of the wire around a paperclip a dozen times and jab it into the back of my radio where an antennae would usually go. “Walla!” I now have perfect radio reception. I love the poetic storytelling of country singers. “What’s the use of this ol’ git-tar,” I sing along, taking out everything I’ll need.
I crush up the bag of jalapeño chips and add two packs of jack mackerels. Once they are evenly mashed together, I put them in my hotpot to cook. I empty an orange electrolyte into a bag of rice, add hot water, and place that in my roommate’s hotpot. The containers of instant cheese potatoes and refried beans go to the side.
“Now to the good stuff!” I take out two packs of Duplex Cookies, a Snickers Bar, Chick-O-Stick, and two Brown Sugar oatmeal packs.
I segregate the black and white halves, scraping all the creme into a cup to meltdown into icing. I crush the cookies to dust. I soften the oatmeal up with hot water and mix it with the cookie dust, molding the mixtures into two cake layers. The white layer goes on the bottom to be topped by the melted down Snickers Bar. The black layer goes on top to be covered by the icing. The Chick-O-Stick is crushed and sprinkled over the top.
I set the cake to the side to harden into a delicious treat for the tastebuds. Later, when I hear maintenance workers returning to the block, I add water to the potatoes and beans, vigorously stir, and separate them into our large white bowls. I divide the sweet rice and fried fish evenly into the bowl as well, topping them with squeeze cheese and ranch dressing. A row of snack crackers is halved around the edges of both bowels.
“Man! What’s all this?” My cellie’s eyes glow like sapphires as he smile ear to ear. “This is your birthday feast, Birthday Boy! Haap-pee Birth-Day! Haap-pe! Birth-Day!” I jump into a jazzed up song that our neighbors join.
Ryan is actually blushing. “Dude, this is love for real. I’ll never forget this, San. Thank you!” He gives me a manly hug that nevertheless elicits “Ahhhs” from the others. “Y’all finna make me cry,” Lady J sighs a few houses down to more laughter. We pay them no mind. We turn up the tunes and jam out as we devour the feast. We eat two pieces of cake and share the rest with the others.
“Another great day,” I say.
“The best!’ Ryan add.
And so the sun sets on another day with more laughter than lamentations. We close our eyes with satiated smiles, marinating in the marvelous memories that sustain us, before drifting into the dreams for the future that temper our faith with the fortitude to face another day in a cage that we call home.
Judge Piper Kerman, author of Orange Is the New Black says this about "Another Great Day": 'Another Great Day' flies in the face of assumptions about prison life. Using narrative and beautiful attention to detail, the author pulls readers into the daily truth that what we do creates our world. Creativity, pleasure and kindness all dwell in this story, shown lovingly via action rather than exposition. The tale of a few hours of prison life makes real the resilience and community incarcerated people create.