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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.

In every story, there is a turning point. It’s the moment where the main character figures out what needs to be done for success. For me, getting to that point took a while.

At the time I first got locked up, I was very angry and depressed. I tried to bury myself in books and sleep. When I was finally on my way to prison and had stopped blaming everyone else for my mistakes and bad choices, I sat in an empty cell with only a brown paper bag, an NSF (non-sufficient funds) envelope, a red wax pencil, my bedroll and a fish kit (a bag of supplies given to new prisoners). A few days later, I got a card from mom. I wrote her back on the paper bag and sent it with the NSF envelope. She sent me some money and we started writing.

After about three years, I started getting mail from other members of my family, including cousins I helped raise who were growing up to become successful adults. I looked in the mirror at my grey stubble and realized that I am the reason I was locked up. I realized that it was my fault I was in prison, no one else’s. I realized that people loved me. That was heavy on me.

With that, I decided to do something about it. I started writing stories and essays and articles. I kept up my studies and kept writing my family. But the work didn’t really begin until I made it to San Quentin.

My turning point was when I became involved in prison reform and social justice issues.

See, one aspect of human life is being part of the issues that concern all of humanity. As social beings, people want to be involved with other people. Even a recluse needs people to know they want nothing to do with people. When I realized I could do something to affect change, even in a few people, that was when I realized that I could turn my life around completely and for the better.

When I got involved with Prison Renaissance at Stanford, I started to see value in what my life could offer others. I started making friends that inspired me to do better things with my life. I started to see the blessings in helping others. I started to meet people via correspondence who were interested in my work and who were indeed very interesting in their crusades to help make a better world.

Realizing my worth and usefulness was a turning point for me. Prison reform and mentorship and writing about social issues made me realize I can affect change in the world, too. If I can change at least one person, that makes everything worth it.

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.

George Coles-El is a poet, writer, graffiti artist and tutor. He writes under the pen name Mesro Dhu Rafa’a, which means “stand with the sun, master of the ascendants.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, he completed an anthology of writings called "Unsung Hero." He is incarcerated in California.