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I heard a young man cry yesterday.

This should not seem like a strange thing. But to hear someone cry out loud in prison is as rare as an eclipse or a leap year. In a toxic masculine environment, crying can signal weakness, which could lead to possible extortion and victimization. Not that everyone in a prison is a predator, but to protect one’s own safety, one takes the cue from the three monkeys: hear no evil, see no evil and speak no evil.

But when I heard the kid’s sobs, my heart went out to him. I felt like a concerned father.

The guy was about 19 or 20 years old — a millennial or Gen-Z — living among lions, tigers and bears (oh my).

Prison is built on injustice and violence, but not humanity. I see fights and riots. Guys break bones playing sports, but they never cry.

People in prison cry, but they mostly shed tears behind closed doors or with their heads under their blankets if they live in a dorm setting. If someone tells you that their father or mother died, you know to give them space.

Cellmates will leave for hours to allow their cellmate time to cry. The cellmate doesn’t witness the tears fall, but he knows it has been done. The person might not be able to really grieve, but they can manage a small bloodletting just to relieve some pain before heading back to the prison stage to act as if nothing happened, like you haven’t been hit with tragic news that’s changed your life forever.

This kid’s sobs were different. He broke the prison sound barrier.

“Is he crying?” someone asked.

“Yeah,” a stern voice replied.

Then silence.

The kid’s ordeal started with him arguing with a guard. The kid may or may not have been out of his cell without permission. He was a kid, not used to being caged 23 hours a day (due to COVID-19 restrictions). It’s not an excuse, it’s just the reality.

The guard locked him back up. The kid began loudly cursing the guard out, calling him all types of names and expletives. The kid was super aggressive while standing his ground.

Then, his voice cracked.

He began to sob uncontrollably, saying, “You guys are always picking on me.” His sobs grew louder.

“I’m not even supposed to be here,” he said.

I became more heartbroken, but I stood stone-faced, using my best poker face. I wanted to comfort the kid. Some of us were worried, hoping the young man wouldn’t hurt himself. But a poker face remained.

The next morning, I stepped out of my cell to inquire who was crying. To my surprise, it was a young man I mentor. His father had just died a week prior. I don’t dare talk to him about what happened last night. When he is ready, we will talk about it. But now that I knew the possible cause of the tears, I started checking around on how people felt about the crying incident.

As expected, his peers were upset, calling him “soft.” Older prisoners, like myself, said, “Things have changed.”

I reflected on how something so natural had become such a rare public display in prison. Maybe the next generation will continue to challenge the status quo, bringing a little humanity into the museum of false beliefs.

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.

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Marcus "Wali" Henderson

Marcus "Wali" Henderson is an editorial associate for the Prison Journalism Project and the editor-in-chief of San Quentin News. Marcus has said he never thought he would find more to his life than just doing time. The day he arrived at San Quentin State Prison, his old cellmate asked him to help cover a baseball game in which the prisoners were playing a team from outside. When the cellmate told Marcus to interview these people, his mouth dried up, and he realized he hadn't talked with anybody besides prisoners and guards for more than 15 years. That was his introduction as a reporter.