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In October 2020, students at Miami Youth Academy and men at San Quentin State Prison in California started a letter exchange facilitated by the Prison Journalism Project. In this latest round, the men were asked about a routine day in prison. 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.

My days are pretty standard issue. Nothing overly exciting ever happens in prison, yet one more reason to stay away.

I get up before the sun so I can pray and read scripture before I watch a little television while setting up the day’s projects. As an aspiring author, I make it a point to write something every single day. Program times are on a rotating schedule to promote physical distancing. We are given an hour and a half per tier to shower, get some exercise and use the phone. Sometimes, program is delayed by cops collecting people for appointments, so sometimes only three tiers can have program. If the cops are feeling especially heinous, only two tiers will make it out. Or none.

So there is no set routine for the program outside the cell, but there is a set program inside this cell. Once I’m done with television, I set my day’s projects. Last week, I wrote letters to students at Stanford University, replying to their letters they sent me. Today, I will start writing a new book I’ll name “Cancri” and I will continue my final revision of “A Very Long Story,” the first of a series of novellas I’m writing. Before I start that though, I’m writing this letter to you. Since you are important to me, I made sure when I got your letters yesterday that I would make writing back a priority.

For my program, I spend upwards of 15 hours a day reading, writing and studying. Anytime someone comes by, I am sitting near my bunk, which is my desk when I’m awake and I’m at work. A key survival skill for me is working. I am a recovering claustrophobic, so I need to keep my mind off these closed walls. Sometimes that means spending time reading or doing research for writing projects or art pieces. Sometimes that means doing correspondence courses to keep my intellect engaged. Sometimes that means writing strange tales to include with letters to loved ones. Sometimes that means concocting new characters or studying the scripture or reading newspapers or taking notes for news programs. Sometimes that means tutoring people that arrive at my door.

A definite key to survival, though, is discernment. That means using my intellect and intuition to figure out who genuinely needs help, who only deals with me simply because I’m useful, who wants to misuse and abuse me, and who are real friends in need of camaraderie. Beware, because someone will come around under the guise of friendship who wants to misuse and abuse you. Some people who claim to want help simply want you to just hand them the answers or do the work for them. You have to be able to discern who these people are in order to protect yourself and your interests. You also have to be careful of your own intentions. Is that person truly a friend or someone you find useful every now and again? Do you go to this person because you genuinely want help or because you know they can just give you the answers? Do you really care about this person or do you only care about what this person can do for you?

These are the types of things I study during a standard issue day. I write cautionary tales about the lessons I learn in the hopes that making them more interesting will convey the lessons better. Studying these things about your relationships will help with your decision-making and keep you from having toxic relationships. Those toxic relationships sometimes lead us to toxic behavior. Which leads to ending up like me, spending days confined in a tiny cell wishing I had done better things with my life.

One day I will walk free, and it is my intention to use this ordeal to help people like you make the right choices so you don’t have to have standard issue days. Each day should bring you closer to your dreams instead of closer to prison. You have the power to be great, but you have to believe in yourself. You have to believe that you can be what you want to be, and that your hopes and dreams do not have to be ignored for your survival. I wanted to be a teacher. If I had made these good decisions early, I may have been able to achieve that goal. But I didn’t so now I’m writing to you about it. You have the chance to turn your life around, so use these standard issue days to make your life extraordinary.

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.

Mesro Dhu Rafa'a

George Coles-El, better known as Mesro Dhu Rafa’a, is a poet, writer and graffiti artist. When Mesro is not tutoring GED students and writing, he enjoys role-playing games such as “Dungeons and Dragons” and “Magic, The Gathering,” and writing science fiction and fantasy stories. During this pandemic, Mesro has completed an anthology of writings called Unsung Hero. Mesro Dhu Rafa’a is a pseudonym, which means “stand with the sun, master of the ascendants.” He is incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison in California.