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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.

My Friends, 

I have to tell you about how COVID-19 affected me. 

 First of all, I am not from the state of California. And I have been in prison for 23 years. 

I don’t get visits, so letter writing, phone calls and the occasional pictures are visits for me. My sons were 12 years old and 7 years old when I committed this offense. 

The victim of my offense is not the only person who I harmed. I need for you to use your imagination on who all I hurt. 

So, when I could not use the phones to talk to my loved ones, I felt sad. I stopped writing family and friends out of fear of not wanting to infect them through letters. This prison had become a bad place for infections. Now, we are not out of danger from COVID-19 but I’ve been taking extra precautions. 

I am begging you not to forget the feelings and thoughts that come with you in not being able to communicate with your loved ones. 

My sons have children and I know my grandchildren by the tones of their voices and the occasional pictures. I know what I have missed out on and I hope that you do, too. 

My sons tell me all the time that “no amount of money can take them away from their children,” which makes me proud of them. 

They earn every red cent by the gifts and talents they took time to learn in order to be prepared to provide the care, affection, recognition, respect, commitment, trust, and the honest and open communication it takes to raise their own children. 

So, my friends, know this — these words are ingredients for real love and it took COVID-19 for me to appreciate everyone and everything in existence.  

Love is greater than hate. 

A sincere friend, 
Anthony “Habib” Watkins  

Students reply to Anthony “Habib” Watkins 

Hello Mr. Watkins, 

How are you doing? I received your letter and was greatly inspired by it. It really made me think more than twice about committing a crime again after you said you don’t really ever get mail or visits from family since you are not from California.  

I’ve been away from my family for almost a year now and I couldn’t even begin to imagine how bad it would feel to be away from them for 23 years.  

I also was curious, what were you sentenced to? Is there any chance you could get out on parole soon? If you were to get out, what would be the first thing you would do?  

Anyways, I appreciate your letter and hope for a response on this one.  

Best regards, 
J. S.-M.  

Hi Mr. Watkins,   

I’m doing well, thank you. I hope you are too. 

I will get out soon and it feels great. I’m 17 now and I was facing life. I went to real jail for a very serious charge, but I beat it thanks to God. I was blessed enough to get a second chance, with a plea to become a juvenile again and get my charges lowered. 

While I have done many things in my life, I feel it is never too late to change. When I get out I’m going to go about my life completely differently. While there have been many people who have tried to help in the past, I didn’t listen. But we can learn from past mistakes and start listening to their advice today.  

I feel you. I used to use the same emotional anger to help me get through life and the things I was doing.  

Thank you for all the insight you gave me. Hopefully, I will hear from you before I go home, but if not I will live better.  

Keep your head up. There are better days coming. 

A. F.  

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.

Anthony "Habib" Watkins is a writer and artist whose work includes "I Never Knew," performed during the Prison University Project's Open Mic Live 2016. He is incarcerated in California.

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.