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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.

Change is a process. It comes in a series of moments or events. I entered prison at the age of 19 with a gang mentality. I was still associating with a crowd of friends, until one day I was on my way to another unit to get my face and neck tattooed. This was in the 90s, where you had to earn your tattoos. 

I was on my way to get my tats, when an older prisoner, who I didn’t know but had seen in the yard, approached me. 

“Hey, youngster,” he said. “You look smart, if I give you a book, would you read it?” 

Reluctantly, I said yes. He was a smart and strong brother, so I trusted him and he gave me the book “Enemies: The Clash of Races” by Haki Madhubuti. The title grabbed my attention and changed my life forever. The book was about how social injustices can shape you and your environment and provided solutions on how to redevelop your mind to help your family and loved ones. 

It didn’t change my association with the gang, but it did stop me from making the second biggest mistake of my life: having my face and neck tattooed. It would take me close to two more years before I would break with my associates and friends, but I found myself in the prison library more and more, reading philosophy, history and culture from Immanuel Kant, Howard Zinn and Plato.

One day, I was coming from work in the prison kitchen, when I saw a sea of my homeboys and so-called enemies — over 150 men — about to have a mass riot in the middle of the yard. 

I stopped and asked one of my partners what was happening. He said he didn’t know, but they were just going to get it on. I asked two more of my partners what was happening and they said they didn’t know either, but they were just going out there. 

I said, “Wait, let me go talk to the other guys to see what’s happening, because a lot of people are about to get hurt.” By “the other guys,” I was referring to my so-called enemies.

I went to talk to one of their main guys and I asked what was going on and what this was all about — and to my surprise, he didn’t know. I knew that we supposedly didn’t like each other, but this was crazy. 

By the time we investigated what happened, we realized that it started with one of our guys shooting dice with one of their guys. They had gotten into an argument over a point and a dispute about our guy owing the other one money. 

I asked how much, and he said a can of tuna. I was blown away. Somebody could have died out here over a can of tuna and nobody even thought to ask what was going on. I told them I had tuna and I paid the debt. I told my partners never to call me out there again and that was the day I broke my gang mentality. 

That book saved my life. Not only did it teach me that I had to do better for me, but I had to do better for them and my family. That day, I learned responsibility.

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.