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Photo collage of writer with handwritten essay, notebook and pencils
Illustration by Teresa Tauchi. Photo of Chanell Burnette courtesy of the author.

The following essay is part of PJP’s ongoing series, “Black Writers on What Lies Ahead.” As part of our Black History Month coverage, this special project sheds light on the future — the history in the making — of Black Americans incarcerated throughout the country.

When I came to prison in 2005, I was 25 years old with two young children. I had more than 20 years to serve before freedom.

Back then, I wondered: How could I survive prison? Would I?

Now, I'm months away from my release and still living. I will leave prison in June and finally reunite with my family and children.

More than anyone, my auntie Sharon Burnette helped me survive my sentence. When I was first sent to prison, it happened to be the same prison where she was also incarcerated. She was 33 years into a life sentence when I had arrived.

My auntie and I were housed in the same wing, which helped me navigate incarceration. She showed me how to make it through my sentence relatively unscathed, and she gave selflessly to me whenever I needed anything.

When my funds were low, she ordered items from the commissary for me. She cooked for me every day when she came in from work.

But the biggest surprise was all of the personal items and food she had stashed away for me when I first arrived.

She encouraged me to take advantage of the free education and self-help groups in prison. She showed me that it was possible to rise and be respected, regardless of the oppression threatening to snuff out my dignity. I think I've done well over my 19 years of incarceration.

Because of her, and my entire supportive family, I’ve used writing during my prison sentence as a way to share my experiences and hopefully transform other people’s lives. Writing to move others has been a dream of mine since childhood.

She has since been released on parole. I look forward to spending time with her later this year. 
Upon release, I will reside in Virginia for a while to spend time with my family and continue my prison advocacy work as an intern with Coalition for Justice. I will still write and plan to eventually return to school to obtain an English degree. Hopefully, someday, I will become the world-renowned author I envision myself to be.

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.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.