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Editor's note: From 2018 – 2019, I taught a writing class to a group of kids who were serving adult sentences in Mississippi. As part of Scalawag's Abolition Week coverage, I interviewed one of my former students, who is publishing under the pseudonym JS. I met JS when he was 16 years old, just a year or so into a 10-year sentence. He recently turned 19, and wrote to me about coming of age in confinement, his experience with carceral systems, and suggestions for dismantling them. To protect him, he's publishing under a pseudonym, JS. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity. — Ko Bragg, Race & Place editor
Ko Bragg: What is it like spending your childhood in prison?
JS: I was 14 when I first got arrested, and a month before I turned 15, I was in prison. It's really emotional watching everyone you grew up with do the things you wanted to do without you, and it's very hard to continue living a happy life when you are young and don't know what all that time means. Because I really wasn't even mature enough to make decisions that would be for better or worse.
KB: Do you think prisons should exist? Should police exist?
JS: I feel as if prison should be held but only for rehabilitating reasons, because the way it's set up is hard for us to mentally stay focused from all the trials and tribulations we face daily. Police should exist because they are supposed to be a sense of protection, but law enforcement should have certain requirements, because our own kind is more scared rather than feeling protected whenever their presence is around.
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Instead of police overwhelming kids, I think kids should have a gathering center where they have counseling, recreational time, and numerous learning experiences so they could embrace the feeling of actually being a child—and to know the proper steps of becoming a successful adult.
KB: What do you think about kids being charged as adults in the first place?
JS: The thing with charging teens as adults [should be] to rehabilitate us and expand our minds. But the amount of time that they even approach a teenager with is more than we even lived on earth. I understand wrong is wrong, but when you actually lived your whole teenage years incarcerated it really makes you think that there's no understanding with the system. Because who would want their child to miss everything that really matters at that early age? Some children might not be mentally ready for those situations that they have to adapt to, so I feel as if teens shouldn't be charged as adults.
KB: I know these kinds of questions are hard. I want to ask more about what you feel you've been missing out on the most as a kid in prison. It can be anything—food, sports, people?
JS: This is the question I've been waiting on my whole time being incarcerated, because nobody genuinely knows how it feels to spend consecutive years in prison. One thing I missed out on was OPPORTUNITY, and a chance to let the world see my full potential. I watched so many years go by missing out on the things I didn't get to do as a child—literally everything as a teenager. I missed out on great memories with my family. But it gave me the strength and ability to make a better future for myself and to never play with my freedom again.
A lot of people incarcerated are overlooked because we're too busy being judged, when we truly have talent and deserve to be treated like others. I want people to know that I have a life too, and one day I'm gonna be the best man I could be when they set me free.
KB: What do you know about the abolitionist movement to get rid of prisons and police?
JS: I haven't heard about it.
KB: Well, how do you define justice?
JS: Justice is when you truthfully and righteously make a decision or effort on the behalf of law. Justice is when you truthfully and righteously make a decision, or even an effort on the behalf of incontrovertible evidence. Justice should have the quality of equity and happiness, without envy and hate, so peace can be filled from within.
KB: I just went back and read one of your pieces of writing from class from 2018, where you shared your earliest memory—the death of your mother. Are you comfortable sharing more about her?
JS: Growing up at the age of four and having to face the fact that your mom is never coming back really puts a depressing thought every day in your head that you have to build yourself up—to not break down, but learn how to cope with the feeling. It really made me feel like I was the black sheep everywhere I went. A lot of things I seen other kids doing with their parents growing up, I never had any of that. People don't understand how it really feels to go through those things as a child. Sometimes it makes you go cold-hearted to the situation and shut everything and everybody out in the world. But as you get older, it really becomes a testimony that you would love to share because of the hard years you went through. I still got through it, and now it's my time to make her proud.
KB: You also wrote in my class that people can change if they have someone motivating them. Who or what motivates you now?
JS: Yes, I did talk about how people can change if they have someone motivating them, and the reason I still feel that way is because no matter what I went through in life, when I felt like I didn't have nobody, the only thing I could count on was faith. Through that, faith has guided me in a direction of motivating, uplifting, and inspiring people that motivated me and enhanced my vision to a better perspective in life. I don't know why, but it's like people see a lot in me that I didn't see. So everybody in this world—no matter if they love or hate me—is a motivation because it gives me a reason to prevail. Sometimes I feel like I'm chosen.
See also: In Photos—Desde Adentro (From Within)
KB: I read something else you wrote about all of your goals. Getting your GED was at the top of your list. How did it feel to get your GED?
JS: Without the man above it wouldn't be possible. I really don't know where to start about getting my GED, but actually looking back, that being one of my biggest goals made me even more happier because I didn't give up through all the hard times when I felt like it. It was such a wonderful bittersweet moment. On the inside I was so proud of myself, and the best moment was looking up at the sky telling my momma I did it for her.
KB: Do you ever imagine what your life would be like if you never went to prison? What do you envision?
JS: Sometimes I try to imagine, but it's hard because prison wasn't all for the bad after all. I learned a lot and achieved a lot while temptation tempted me, but I never gave up. I always kept a positive mindset throughout it all. Every day in prison is gonna be a battle, from the officers to the inmates. It's hard to stay out of trouble when that's all you're surrounded by, and the officers don't make it no better—they rather come in to work to make our time even harder. It's no source of peace unless you find something you love to do, but it's easier saying it than doing it.
The thing that isn't bad about prison to me is that you actually get a chance to rehabilitate yourself, if it's really what you want from within. I've achieved certificates of life skills and problem-solving techniques, ACT Raising Safe Kids programs, work development training. My GED. And last, but not for long, my ACT WorkKeys test.
Sometimes I think about what my life would be like if it wasn't for prison, but it gets depressing. So I rather manifest and pray for a better future.
KB: If you had the power to change the justice system, what would be the treatment or help you give to someone who was in your exact same situation when you were first arrested?
JS: By genuinely getting to know a person without judging them, and actually trying to understand them. Learn what they enjoy doing and provide the criteria that they need to even try to fulfill their purpose, so that they wouldn't think so negatively about life and really feel like they matter. Try to expand their mind and help them focus on morals and goals so they could be financially and mentally ready for the future they are striving for.
To me a healthy, safe environment should have a small percentage of harmful conditions or harmful people. It should be a beautiful example of unity, which is a supportive community. Everybody should consider the surrounding as a whole. Growing up in Batesville, Mississippi, I most definitely didn't have a childhood that I wanted to remember or be happy about, but as I got older it taught me that my childhood is what made me and helped me visualize my future and never let anyone dictate my greatness.
More from abolition week:
What the history books won't tell you about abolition
The abolitionist podcast that reveals how little you know about prison
Read, Watch, Listen, Do: An Abolitionist Media Guide
Illustrations for this piece are by Gabriella Wyatt. Wyatt is a self-taught artist. She is best known for her auto-bio comic SHADES OF GRAY. Currently, she is working on an omnibus titled ANY WAY BUT STRAIGHT.
Artwork for Scalawag's Abolition Week 2021 is provided by A.B.O. Comix, a small press and advocacy collective that works in solidarity with currently/formerly incarcerated LGBTQ people to amplify their voices and publish their creative endeavors.