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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 Prison Journalism Project 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.

Dear MYA students,

What would I say to my teenage self, knowing what I know now?

First, let me say I came to prison when I was 19 years old. I’m 47 now. Doing time makes you grow up fast.

I would say to myself that there is nothing wrong with you. There is nothing wrong with being smart. There is nothing wrong with being loving and caring for others. Take strength in being who you really are.

My mama once told me, “It’s only you who can get you where you want to be in life.” I did not listen to my mother then, but now I understand.

I am in control of my dreams. Even when others don’t believe in you, you have to believe in yourself. You have to trust that inner voice. It will protect you and reveal what’s right and what’s wrong.

I would tell myself you don’t have anything to prove to anyone but yourself. Thank the ones that support you in your time of good and bad.

I would tell myself everything will be OK. You will make mistakes but that is part of learning. What I thought about life at 14, I didn’t think when I was 21. When I was 21, I thought differently from when I was 25. Guess what, I still wasn’t grown then. I thought I was, but at 40 I looked back and said to myself, “Man, I thought I knew it all.”

I would tell myself not to be hard on myself. There is love and lessons in all that I have been through. You just have to follow your heart and dreams, as long as you are alive.

I would tell myself to enjoy my loved ones and family because we are not always promised to be here. They have to be what’s important in your life.

I would tell myself it’s easy being me and not what people want me to be, because if I listen to them I would never really be happy.

I would tell myself that whatever motivates me, use it to get what I want in life. But don’t hurt or harm anyone because that will stay on my soul. I would then hug me, because life is love.

Yours always,
Marcus “Wali” Henderson

Replies to Marcus “Wali” Henderson

Dear Marcus Wali,

I am going to start off by saying thanks for writing me. It meant a lot to me. I don’t have your knowledge.

After reading your letter, it reminded me of my brother talking to me because he always told me how to move and to not do the things he did. Life is too short. I’m hearing about a lot of people getting killed while I am in the program right now. So I think I should change now that I have the chance to.

I am kinda lucky, not happy, but lucky that I got into this program because before I came to jail I was moving too fast, trying to rob anything coming my way. I feel like I was going to either get killed or be in here for something other than what I got now.

My big brother was out here doing bad and I used to look up to him. I wanted to be like him so bad. What was crazy was when I quit my football career just to run the streets. I regret that a lot because I realize how much of a good player I am and where I could have been and how far I could go with football.

My thoughts of how I came to jail was me following the wrong people and trying to get to the money the wrong way, instead of getting to it the right way. The people I hang around with are the people that I grew up with, so it’s hard to separate from them. They were the people who starved with you and grind with you.

When I first came to jail I was always rushing my time, trying to go home just to do the same stuff I was doing that got me in here. But time went by and I started to realize I need to chill and lay down and do this little bid.

I also had to realize that God doesn’t always help you out of situations. He uses the situation to help you. I made this bed and I got to lay in it.

Seeing moms crying in court, y’all know how that feels. So when I get out, I am going to do anything in my will to make her happy. I can honestly say I learned my lesson and I plan on doing right when I go home and staying out of the police’s face. I’ll be home soon.

Appreciate y’all for writing. Keep ya heads up and be safe in there.

All the best to you,

Dear Marcus Wali,

I understand that people are not going to change overnight. But you always have to stay strong and stand on 10 toes.

My father went to prison and I don’t want to end up like him. Being in this program is affecting me because I am away from my family.

Sometimes I sit down in my room and think how did I get in this place. I’m doing something wrong and I need to fix it. I need to straighten up and get my act together and move on. I need to get all these bad thoughts out of my head and do what’s right for me and my family.

What are some things you do in prison? In our program, we get canteen and go outside to play football and just chill. We also watch Youtube on TV or play video games.

I know it sounds like a daycare for juveniles, but it’s not that sweet. Some kids have worse problems than me. They don’t have a family to go to or don’t have things to live for. They don’t have a good adult role model in the house or don’t have parents who care about them.

As a teenager, I feel like some of us don’t realize that we have it good.


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

Marcus "Wali" Henderson is the former editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He became a reporter the day he arrived at San Quentin.

The students at the Miami Youth Academy wrote these stories for their newspaper Titan Tribune, a collaborative effort by the facility, Miami-Dade County Public Schools and Exchange for Change, a Miami-based non-profit group that supports writing programs in youth commitment and adult correctional facilities. The students work on the paper in a journalism class taught by retired journalism teacher Henry Unger. The writers are identified by their initials to protect their identities.