Category Archives: Stories from Prisoners

Student Work Wednesday

(The following is an excerpt from a larger, work-in-progress essay).

You Live and You Learn by Manny C.

I was born into a world that was falling apart in violence and crime. Some commit crimes for the thrill, some do it simply because they feel there is no way out. Money is the root of all evil.

In the city of Chicago, this is the reality for most family members. The youth find pleasure inside gang life. They refuse to live in poverty and quickly adapt to the fast life, fast money. This was/is the story of my life, until I finally listened to my new mentors that showed me a different perspective. My sudden dynamic experience being mentored was overwhelming.

I was born in the Norwegian Hospital and raised on Kedvale between North Avenue and Cortland. At the age of 8, I realized I lived in the borderline of two rival gangs. Groups by the dozens would stand under street lights late at night surrounded by girls and fancy cars. Shootouts would erupt out of gangways and alleys making everybody scatter like roaches. I would be watching from our third floor bedroom window with my brother that was 2 years older than me. We would try to make sense on who is doing what to who and why.

There were nights when we would be excited to see events like these. But there were days we wished they would just put the guns down. Countless times our block parties were cancelled due to gang violence.

I remember the day as if it was yesterday, the day I learned how to ride a bike. It was my 9th birthday, mid-June on a beautiful day. My dad bought me my first two-wheeled bicycle. I couldn’t wait to finish eating so I could go outside and show it off to my friends.

I remember my dad guiding me and telling me how to keep my balance. I felt his arm on my shoulder as he told me to go faster until I noticed he had removed his hand from me. I looked back and realized he stayed behind and I was riding this bike by myself. I felt like the coolest kid on the block with my black Huffy bike with pegs.

The block party was on full effect. My neighbor right then and there approached the fire hydrant with a big, red wrench. All the kids on the block knew what time it was. As my neighbor struggled to open the valve, every kid stopped what they were doing and ran towards the water that began blasting out. The water from the hydrant formed a small rainbow in the mist.

Down the block, the latest Cumbia song started playing on full volume. The older teens got in the middle of the street and started dancing to the rhythm. It didn’t take long for one of them to pull me off my Huffy bike to make me dance. At nine years old I didn’t know how to dance, but I sure acted like I knew what I was doing; shaking my tail side to side, one step, two step. Emily laughed with me and encouraged me to keep going while she showed off her moves. Emily was 16 years old and she was my next door neighbor. I had the biggest crush on her ever since I met her. I loved it when she would call me her “lil man.”

As I danced with her I heard a bird call…all of a sudden, I saw a masked man run out of a gangway. He started letting rounds off towards Cortland where three guys started running for cover. Emily covered me with her body as she carried me off the street as fast as she could. One thing I knew for sure was that one of my family members was involved in this constant battle for this neighborhood.

Yet again, another perfect day ruined. Why did it have to be on my birthday?

Unfortunately, I had eight uncles that were gang related. It was normal for me to have their company; I felt secured. One tragic day I lost one of my uncles to gang violence. This forced my parents to leave the city for the sake of my two little sisters, my older brother, and me. But it was too late for me.

By eighth grade, I carried on my uncle’s ways. I smoked and caused trouble in the neighborhood with my friends. I bought my first car at age 15; all drug money. My parents didn’t have a clue I had so much. They were just proud I had such tremendous grades in school.

I always believed the weed was the key to my success to my grades. Math and science were my best subjects. I actually found astronomy and formulas quite fascinating. I mastered a couple formulas by simply putting two and two together. This made everything else mathematically simple. And curiosity took the best of me in biology. It blew my mind how small I am compared to how big the universe is. I needed to know more; I was hungry for knowledge. But once that bell rang, it was back to the streets…

Student Work Wednesday

What Would Be a Great Ability? by Smiley


Would you just use it to not be seen? Or would it be more of a mental thing? Would you use it to free yourself from a trap? Or would you use it to hide yourself from all of life’s crap? Would you use it to be the greatest robber? Or would you use it to help another? Would you use it to hide the way you look? To hide the beauty that someone else mistook?


Would you use it for all the knowledge to gain? Or would you use it to keep all the inferior people slain? Would you use it to achieve a greater career? To become a person that everybody would fear? Would you use it to better yourself? Or would you use it to help someone else? Would you use it to overcome the intellectual barrier that no one has surpassed? Or would you use it to just be someone that is remembered from the past?


Would you like to be the one that gains it in jail wearing shackles? Or would you gain it by overcoming some of your physical obstacles? Would you use it to become one of the greatest superheroes? Or you just want it, so when you’re seen, the expression is “eeeeeeh bro?!” Would you be able to help humanity with the weight that’s pushing us down? Or are you just going to be the person, that when it’s needed, it’s never around? Would you use it to push yourself to actually become? Or are you gonna be the person that people say “he just misused it he’s just dumb?!”


Would you use it to reach your limit, which some people say is the sky? Or you just need it to hide yourself in unreachable altitude so no one would see you cry? This is a very special ability, what’s your purpose for it, I need to know why. If I didn’t give you this ability would you just give up and not even try?

Without an ability, you would be just like me, but realize that there is a possibility. That’s what’s wrong with humanity, we don’t open up our eyes and see that the options are endless, there is an infinity.

So let me ask you one more time: What would be a great ability?

To help you reach all your dreams, to help you realize, you do have a future…that is something I foresee.

How 1 Man Spent 10 Years Behind Bars

“Days in prison have a sameness to them, and my most meaningful and frequent conversations were with authors.” –Daniel Genis

An interesting post on The New Yorker details the author’s conversation with a man, Daniel Genis, recently released from prison. The article mostly discusses what Genis did during his 10 years and 3 months in prison: read. It appears Genis read everything he could get his hands on from classics to the more obscure–for example–books on sumo wrestling and sausages.

While incarcerated, Genis kept a journal documenting all the books he read with commentary provided for each entry. He notes that he “started out with books that helped me make sense of the situation around me.” These titles included The House of the Dead by Fyodor Dostoevsky and The Autobiography of Malcolm x.  He obtained his books from his father, prison libraries, or ordered from catalogs.

Genis speaks of not wasting time in prison because that virtually wastes your life. Instead, he says that reading Proust instilled in him the need to write in order to exist outside of prison. To that end, Genis completed a novel while incarcerated.

Find out more of what Genis read while incarcerated by reading the article here.

A Prisoner’s Closest Friend…Is a Book

I was in prison for 16 years and seven months. Even on my most difficult days, books were my companions. Books were what inspired me to banish the feelings of vengeance from my heart, to struggle to survive. Books, and the joy that comes from writing books, brought me out of prison alive. –Mamadali Makhmudov

The title of this post and the aforementioned quote are excerpted from a moving piece recently posted on the English PEN website. English PEN is a UK based organization that seeks to “defend writers and readers in the UK and around the world whose human right to freedom of expression is at risk.” Their ongoing Books for Prisoners campaign highlights the thoughts of detained writers they have supported through the mission of their organization. Books for Prisoners asks its writers to speak to the importance of books and reading while incarcerated. I encourage you to read the piece in its entirety for Makhmudov’s candid explanation on what books meant to him as a prisoner.

An interesting part, which struck me, is his assertion that roughly 10% of the Uzbekistani prisoners he encountered spent their time reading. What Makhmudov does not make clear is whether this is an issue of access, interest, or a combination of both. What is important to note, though, is that the 90%, as characterized by Makhmudov, have little to live for. He states: “they have never read a book that awakens in them any hope for life, any love for their home, any hope for the future. Therein lies the whole tragedy.”

A tragedy may be an understatement, especially if this issue is access to books. While I don’t want to opine here on the reason, it is clear–given the work of English PEN and mention in an earlier blog post of the UK ban on sending books to prisoners–that prisoner access to books is an issue. Whether it is in central Asia, the UK, or here at home in Illinois (where some students recently told me they weren’t able to go to the jail library for 3 weeks), access to books should be a fundamental right of inmates, especially if we aim for the humanistic approach of rehabilitation. You don’t have to read stories like Makhmudov to believe that; you just have to imagine, for one moment, where you would be if you had never read a book.