Prison Writing | Emmett K. Sanders

I am sitting in the near stillness of night, mostly numb to night’ s existence. Numb to the artificial, yellow half-light seeping through the steel grille welded over the tiny, rectangular window in this single steel door. Numb to these concrete walls and the way that coldness clings to them like a sickly shade of latex paint. Numb to that same coldness permeating the worn, concrete floor and the concrete ceiling I cannot see, but know is there. Numb to the unforgivin g nature ofthis thinly-covered, nanow steel bunk I sit upon. Numb to others in their own concrete cocoons. Numb to their sleep and their sleeplessness. Numb to what keeps them awake in the artificial, yellow half-light of night. Numb to their numbness. I am numb to my numbne ss. I am numb.

I never knew how painful numb could be.

I remember Mom bringing her home from the hospital. This tiny creature with balled-up fists, a smushed pink face, and a shock of startlingly orange hair. I remember being eight, staring at her lying in her crib, her staring back through slitted, ice blue eyes as if wondering who I was. I remember wonderin g what she was thinking. I remember wondering who she would be, wondering how her voice would sound. Wondering if she would sing like our brother, if she would laugh loudly and easily like our sister. Would she love to argue like me?

I remember wondering if she would recall me standing there. Would she remember me telling her that I love her ? Promising that I would always protect her, that I would never let anything happen to her? Would she remember me promising that I would always be there for her, no matter what?

No matter what.

I am sitting in darkness, broken by darkness. Broken by distance. Broken by clinging cold and unforgiving steel. Broken by words I cannot unhcar . Broken by promises I could not keep.

I am sitting in darkness, and I cannot be there. I cannot be there for our mother who tells stories. I cannot be there for our brother who sings, or our sister who laughs. I cannot be there for them, and I cannot be there for her. I cannot look on her one last time. I cannot tell her how much I love her, how much I miss her , how sorry I am that I was not ther e. I cannot tell her I will never forget her, never let her go, that I shall wait. I cannot be there to say “goodbye”.

I am sitting in darkness with a pen and a sheet of loose-leaf paper. Sitting in the slender, shadowed patchwork of artificial, yellow half-light seeping through the steel grille in this single steel door. Sitting, concrete cocooned with coldness clinging. Sitting in numbness not quite numb enough.

I am sitting, and I am writing. I am writing a poem. A poem for her. I am being there. I am writing to her.

I am saying goodbye.

I am asked why prison writing matters and who it matters to. I am asked because , as an incarcerated individual, I am an “authority” of sorts on prison writing. I understand this, but I reject this notion. I reject the idea of prison writing as it is generally applied, as some sort of genre of writing. I reject the notion that one must be in prison to write about prison , just as I reject the idea that everything written by those who are incarcerated is prison writing. I am writing in prison, but I am not “prison writing”.

Why do people in prison write? We write for the same reason anyone writes. Some write to fight, some to cope. Some write to stay broken, some to mend. Some write so they won ‘t forget, some that they won ‘t be forgotten. Some use their pens as a way of escaping the often harsh reality of their situation . Others write as a means of maintaining their desperate grasp on reality ; to hold onto who they are. They write to defy definition by condition and environment. To define themselves, rather than be defined by a system that does not care and does not recognize the validity of their humanity.

I have written for all of these reasons and more. I have written because it has allowed me to be who I am, not where I am, and has allowed me to be there, even when I cannot be there.

Writing in prison matters because there are writers in prison. Their writing may take a number of forms and deal with a number of issues and experiences , because the truth is that, even in prison where individuality is denied, no one’s experience is the same. And writing.from prison should matter to everyone. Because it is not the prison experience writers in prison are writing about. It is the human experience, told by those in prison.

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