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Illustration by Sarah Rogers

In October 2020, students at Miami Youth Academy and men at San Quentin State Prison in California started a letter exchange facilitated by Global Forum Online and Exchange for Change, a Miami-based non-profit group that supports writing programs in youth commitment and adult correctional facilities. The Miami Youth Academy houses up to 28 boys from 14 to 18 years old, who are sent there by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. These letters were first published in Titan Tribune, their school newspaper. The students are identified by their initials to protect their identities.

As I sit here on my bed, this metal slab in the open bar prison cell I like to call my cage, I’ve been running scenarios through my head of what daily life in the free world would be like for me had I made a slight adjustment in my thinking. I’m certain that I would not be here in this cage today. I don’t refer to it as a cage because I believe I’m an animal, although there may be some who quickly label me as such simply because I am a prisoner or criminal. But you and I know that we are not our crime. We are much, much more than that. No, I call it a cage because any and everyone who passes by — guards, medical staff, the administration and the myriad other prisoners — can look straight in and see any and everything I may be doing.

When I sit contemplating and reflecting — watching them as they watch me — I realize that the only private thing that I possess amongst these cutthroats, connivers, schemers and the like, is my thoughts.

They are all I have in this world of mental seclusion and the only thing that I can trust to be totally real. However wavering they’ve been in the past, I know them. I am intimate with them. I can depend on them.

They’re private, my thoughts. They cannot be seen or heard. But I’ve recently discovered that, unfortunately, they’re not as unseen or as unheard as I assumed them to be.

Have you ever been told, “Man, I knew you were thinking about robbing him” or “I knew you were going to rob that store”? Or maybe you’ve heard, “I knew not to leave you alone because you would do something crazy.” Others may have said, “I knew you were going to pull that gun out on him.” Or even something like, “I know you better than you know yourself.”

Whatever those statements were, they were said because we have given voice to those unheard and unseen thoughts that we believed to be so private. “You don’t know what I will or will not do,” we say. We can’t, however, blame others for implying that they know we won’t change when we’ve laid out a pattern of thought that reflects our unheard and unseen inner self.

Consciously or not, we created that pattern, so our thoughts are not so private at all.

As I stated at the beginning, this was just a bit of a reflective piece. I only wanted to point out that our thoughts are only private when we are alone. If we are looking to change and make our non-private thoughts reflect positively, then we must change those not-so-private, negative thoughts into positive ones by which we want people to acknowledge us.

So I offer you all this 30-day challenge. Change your once predictable negative thought patterns to positive ones — journaling about how you would have previously responded in contrast to how you would currently respond.

It is our hope that at the end of this 30-day period, you and I will have gained valuable insight into who we can become as opposed to who we currently are.

NOTE: If you have evolved already and approach situations differently than you have in the past, then go back to those times when a different reaction would have produced a positive outcome or changed your current situation in some way.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Vincent O’Bannon is a 2020 graduate of San Quentin Writers’ Guild class and contributing writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.