Why I Write From Prison: ‘So the Heart Can Keep Beating’

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photo of hands on cell bars

Photo by Bettina Dupont via Flickr

I write from prison because I have to. There’s really no option. It is either this, or one long, silent, numb existence spent waiting in line to cash my ticket for death.

When I wake up in the morning, I do not feel like waking up. Do not feel like even wanting to be alive. Every night in my dreams I am free for a few hours of troubled sleep. Only to awaken to a cold, gray cement box and re-realizing every morning that I am trapped.

Wish that I could give you some fancy noble reason for why I write. Like, it might make a difference in a world that is indifferent to me. Or, because I want to spread hope and fight back against the forces that keep us shackled and imprisoned within society and prison.

And maybe those reasons are partly true as well.

But at the heart of it, one tired broken heart, I write for survival, so that the heart can keep beating. Writing about seeing someone get butchered to death will not make that person’s blood pour itself back into his body and the holes close up like footprints the ocean washed away.

My rough childhood, riots, struggles, deaths―none of it will ever disappear. Seeing the shocked anguished faces of my young brother and sister as they heard the judge read off my 137-years-to life sentence as if he were simply reading off bingo numbers: no words will ever describe the helpless trauma in their eyes nor make it go away.

They stopped talking to me years ago. And no, writing them didn’t help.

Nine years ago I found myself with a SHU (Security Housing Unit) term, isolated, suffocating in the hole and wondering how I’m going to survive through all of this.

I’d wake up and realize that my fists are clenched.

Memories of life and of people I loved tortured me day and night. I had to forget them to not feel the pain.

A deep hollow tightness pressed against my chest. I’d have to remember to breathe.

Oxygen is as vital as water to the body. And writing became a way for my soul to breathe as I began keeping a journal. No, it didn’t fix everything. Didn’t do much actually. Not right away at least.

But it was a place where I could channel the craziness in my head, the pain and rage flowing into a pond that reflected an image of myself that I had never seen before. And not only did I begin to see myself, but also the world, almost like looking into a crystal ball when I gazed into my private writings.

And so I guess writing helped me grow and evolve. Forced me to see myself clearly and recognize that I had serious problems I needed to address. It opened up a window where I could begin to see outside this cage into a world I had been mostly ignorant to during my wild street days.

My own ideas of the world began to take form, and it made me hungry for more knowledge, for understanding of why I am here, why all of us are here, why we are given these crazy sentences and why so many of us are trapped in poor ghettos and why the police waged war against us and why we kill each other while the rich get richer and rule the world.

There is no noble reason why I write. I write for myself.

So that my soul can gasp for desperate breaths as I’m suffocated with metal and cement. Sometimes I don’t feel like writing anything, and that’s when I’m not doing good at all. Floating through the days with hopeless hope.

But eventually the pressure breaks through like the sun after a storm and writing shines a light on the darkness. I write to keep some hope alive, as fragile as it may be.

To share a message to anyone who cares to listen. And mostly for myself, because without it I’d be mute and blind, just a body stored in a morgue for the living, where writing gives life.

“Z,” imprisoned as a youth, is currently serving his term in a level 4 prison in California. This essay is published in collaboration with The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based justice system writing workshop.

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