📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
Join us Thursday, August 20 at p.m. EST for a virtual event—Casting Shadows: the prison in our daily lives
Editor's note: All pieces featured in Abolition Week are made possible in conjunction with Exchange for Change, a writing course and letter exchange program for those incarcerated in Florida's prison system.
I want to begin by thanking all of the incredibly bright students who wrote me. Your letters came to me in a moment where my flame was being smothered by monotony and inactivity. Your letters breathed hope in my life even to the point of bringing tears to my eyes. Your encouragement and understanding and acceptance brought not just a smile to my face, but also a sense of renewed purpose.
As all of you can surely relate, this pandemic has brought upon our lives an unwelcomed new normal. I am sure it is inconvenient for you to be stuck at home without being able to chill with your friends or go to school or the movies or the beach. But I am writing you in the hopes of giving you some perspective, a paradigm shift if you will.
My reality has drastically changed. Some of you asked about my daily life. I will elaborate some on my life prior to and after this pandemic.
We get woken up at 4:30 in the morning when the lights come on and we are let out of our cells. My dorm usually goes to breakfast between 5 and 5:30. We walk down to the 'chow hall' to get breakfast and then return to the dorm while walking one in front of the other while inside of a yellow line painted on the walk. I watch the news for a while until 7 when they lock us in for count. They have to count every few hours to make sure we're all still here. When count clears and we're released, my day begins.
Between 8 and 8:30 the dorms are released for 'callouts.' These are any scheduled appointments or classes a resident may have whether it be medical, dental, mental health, library, class, etc. Morning callouts are over at 11 when they start feeding lunch one dorm at a time. After lunch we go back to our dorms for count again. When cleared around one, they release us again for afternoon callouts until three. Most of the compound goes to dinner and back to the dorm for count at five. Some go eat and go back to education until five. At seven classes are returned to the dorm where we remain until the next day.
All photos for Abolition Week by Terence Price.
The dorms are hot as a brick oven from Pizza Rustica as they are not air conditioned, but without the excellent pies. We have some tables where people play dominoes or cards or chess. There are a couple of phones and two kiosks which give us access to email and send and receive 30-second 'video-grams.' We also have tablets, which is where I'm typing this letter. They have limited WiFi for emailing, renting movies, downloading music and educational videos from the Khan Academy. They give us 'stuff' to keep us distracted.
As a side project, I am writing a fantasy book with two friends. The project started as an assignment for my Exchange for Change** Fantasy Writing class. But my friends and I are taking it seriously and giving it a go. I'm a fantasy fiction geek. My favorite authors are Patrick Rothfuss (you have to read The Name of the Wind, a-mazing!), Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, and Jim Butcher. Well, we meet three times a week to discuss plot and world building.
They have to count every few hours to make sure we're all still here. When count clears and we're released, my day begins.
I am also a writer for the institution's newsletter, The Endeavor. We meet every other week as a whole. But I'm at our news desk almost every weekday either working on a story or helping with the editing. I play D&D twice a week as I stated above. And attend a religious study on Saturday. My schedule is super packed.
And then nothing. Nada. Zip. No classes. No speeches. No meetings. No gaming. No newsletter. Nothing. It has been devastating.
We are now separated from other dorms. We eat only with our dorm. We go to the canteen (sodas, chips, candy, ramen soups, and other snacks) only with our dorm. They allow us an hour of rec once a day—only with our dorm. And I have the unique curse of not having any friends in my dorm. No one involved in my programs. No writers I can share with. No one that reads fantasy books. No one. And honestly, it really sucks.
Having nothing to do not only keeps me from becoming involved, but it also forces me to dwell on my sentence and everything I have done to get here.
You guys can still call your friends, text, or even face time. I don't have that privilege. I see some friends as we walk to and from chow and wave. Others I have not seen in almost two months. I talk to my mom and some family and friends from time to time for 15-minute phone calls. But other than that, I don't have people I can relate to or share with and all of it together has shaken my foundations.
The lack of activity has been the worst. My classes and programs were where I met with my friends—like-minded individuals who also believe in bettering themselves and others. My activities are what gave me purpose. They were how I affected my community in a positive manner. Having nothing to do not only keeps me from becoming involved, but it also forces me to dwell on my sentence and everything I have done to get here.
There's only so much TV one can watch. Right? So much time wasted on silly games on my tablet. I don't have access to the library, so I don't have any books (I'm waiting on four books from Barnes and Nobles). And when I do have a book, I'll slaughter an 800-pager in two days.
Some days I feel like laws will change and I will be released in the distant future after paying for my mistakes against man and God.
But in the middle of this vortex of melancholy and monotony, I received these amazing letters from some pretty fantastic young men and women that fed my need for purpose. I found you all to be respectful, inquisitive, sincere, honest, grateful, personal, eloquent, artistic, intellectual, analytical, and insightful. But most of all, you encouraged me. And for that I will always be grateful. I wanted to take a moment and answer some of your questions.
My passion to improve the world I live in came from a change of perspective. In 2011 I attended a religious retreat where I gave my life to God. But plenty of people 'give their life to God' and continue to live quiet lives. Right? Well, my journey has been a little different. This retreat was sponsored by a group of men who spent the whole weekend with us. There must have been 25-30 men who volunteered. Men who had families, jobs, and hobbies. And in spite of their myriad responsibilities, they sacrificed their time and their families to spend a weekend with a bunch in convicts. People who most of the world look down on in disdain and contempt.
They shared their lives with us, their shortcomings, their hopes, and their fears. And they listened. They listened to our anger and about our many shattered dreams. In short, they just loved us. And even now, my eyes drip gratitude as I share these memories with you.
Paradise where others see flames and smell brimstone.
Time in prison definitely makes us reflect on our crime. But, unfortunately, it does not make people learn. These are not magic walls. Change takes effort and courage to own your mistakes. Some people find it too much. Others think they'll change when they get out. But just like these aren't magic walls, the gate we leave prison through is not a magic gate.
This leads me to the last question from Darwin: why did I choose Dante? Commedia may be able to answer this one. The Divine Comedy is a three-part epic poem: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. I chose Dante because I can relate to his journey. I gave up hope when I entered prison. This was my inferno. But then I found a new purpose which began to plant seeds of hope in the fallow ground of my heart.
Some days I feel like laws will change and I will be released in the distant future after paying for my mistakes against man and God. Hence purgatory. Then there are the days when blossoms of hope spring up. Days like the one when I read your letters, like God smiling down at me. Paradise where others see flames and smell brimstone.
It is a paradox. Not that I can see one and someone else another. The paradox is that one day it can feel like paradise and the next like an inferno. It's not easy. But in a few weeks or months or years when I am struggling, I will pull out your letters and remember that it is all about perspective. Because my life does matter. And you guys have helped me remember that.
If I could leave you with one thing, it would be this: be intentional. Be intentional in your relationships with your family and friends. Be intentional with strangers. Be intentional in school and at work. Encourage and help each other because at the end of the day the only thing that matters is the people in your life.
** Editor's note: Exchange for Change is a nonprofit that offers writing courses in South Florida prisons and runs letter writing exchanges with local academic institutions. This is one of those letters written to his writing partners at a local high school. All exchanges are done with pseudonyms and run only for the length of the semester.