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Sign at San Quentin

This is from a letter exchange between men at San Quentin State Prison in California and students at Miami Youth Academy, which houses up to 28 boys from 14 to 18 years old, who are sent there by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. The prompt was to describe a typical day. 

Life in prison is about guarding your sanity and praying to make it home safely. A routine day for me starts at 5 a.m. I wash my face and brush my teeth, as I prepare to say my morning prayers. You have to wake up early, because in prison, there are not a lot of times when the prison is quiet when you have a chance to download and gather your thoughts. That is the time I plan my day.

I make a hot strong cup of coffee and go through the TV news cycle — local, national and world news. This is how you stay informed on what’s happening around you, what’s happening locally, what’s happening across the country and then around the world. I watch the Chinese news, the German news and Africa Live. You have to stay up on politics and business — the two things that run the world. This doesn’t mean you believe everything you see; you just know what’s being said and discussed.

I may or may not eat breakfast, depending on what the prison is serving. Peanut butter and jelly fixes a lot of those problems. Since COVID-19 hit, I do a lot of work in the cell. We only get an hour and a half outside each day. That’s a 15-minute phone call, a 15-minute shower and 30 minutes of yard time. However, you can spend that time how you like. You can just do the yard and get a shower. So I’m stuck in the cell the remainder of the day, reading and writing. I work for the prison newspaper, San Quentin News, so I’m always working on a story, studying reports and learning about different advocacy groups.

I write different people, publications and advocates. I try to stay aware of new laws or the next protest. Just because you are locked up doesn’t mean you can’t be active. Your voice matters, even if it’s only a few people that hear it. The key to surviving prison: don’t come to prison. 

In prison, you have to be aware of your surroundings, the energy and the vibe from both prisoners and guards. Prisons run on schedules and programs, including people, so you have to be aware when something is out of place. Prison is like the streets, with gangs, drugs and police. The main thing is not to get involved with either one of them. You have to build the relationships with the squares, the programmers — those that just go to work, school or church.

Most people will leave you alone, if you are trying to do right. 

Also, never get in debt; don’t owe anybody money, since that’s the easiest way to get manipulated. Be yourself. Most people will respect that. Use your street smarts and don’t put yourself in situations you can’t get out of. 

Remember that your life is important and you have something to offer the world. God gave everyone a gift and a talent, so do what you’re good at and love doing. Read, learn and build for your future — you control that!

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.