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Ink drawing of a Swintec typewriter; concept of writing in prison
Illustration by Liam McCauley

When I started writing, I hated it. I didn’t want to be a writer. I didn’t start writing in prison because of some cliché about being “driven to the page.” I wrote because I was hungry and needed to feed myself.

Writing was my prison hustle. Others cut hair, some do art — some do things I won’t mention on this page. But writing is my thing. I started by writing anything you need in prison.

Legal brief: What court are we filing in?
Love letter: What’s the girl’s name?
Grievance: Tell me how you were wronged.

Fast-forward to year two of writing, when my Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor insisted I write apology letters to anyone I may have wronged. I didn’t think there was enough paper for that. Be honest, he said, and above all be true.

What he didn’t tell me was that writing with raw honesty will tear your guts up — like when I wrote a letter to my mother apologizing for the piece-of-shit son I was and for all the suffering I caused her. Like when I was sentenced, and I looked to the back of the courtroom and saw her and my sister quietly sobbing.

Those moments had made me feel like I was stuck in a barrel at the bottom of the ocean. Writing cut me so deep, I didn’t think I could endure the emotional pain; but it also showed me beauty on the other side of that pain.

Fast-forward to year five of writing.

That’s when I submitted a piece to my prison newspaper. Much to my surprise, I received my first byline. It was as if I broke out of the barrel and the sun shone on me from all sides. Was I good at this? I liked the feeling and decided I wanted more.

I spent the next couple years reading and writing, sharpening my craft. I submitted to contests and prison-related publications. I got mostly crickets. But then I was nominated for awards and even won a couple. I saw my byline reach more mainstream publications. I was hooked.
Now every morning, I wake up at 4:30 a.m., after my cellie leaves for work. My writing desk sits on the tiny shared table in our cell. It fits my Swintec typewriter, my go-to American Heritage dictionary and little else.

I always spend the next three-and-a-half hours writing at the desk. It turns out I have never wanted anything more in my life than to be a writer.

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.

Leo Cardez is a writer and editor of the prison newspaper, Dixon Digest. Cardez volunteers as an Advisory Board Member of Prison Health News and serves on a committee for College Guild. His work has been published in Michigan Quarterly Review, Mend Journal, and Muse, and he is currently a student of the Augustana College prison Education Project. He is incarcerated in Illinois. Leo Cardez is his pen name.