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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 key moment in prison that changed their perspective. 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.

The key moment in prison that helped me to redefine how I live my life was when I realized that I enjoyed writing. As a youngster, I used to write a lot. As I got older and moved away from writing, I lost my passion for it. It wasn’t until I began taking a college English course, where writing was 95% of the curriculum, that I recaptured that long dormant desire.

Once I began writing again, a friend who had heard me reading one of my essays introduced me to San Quentin’s Journalism Guild, where they conducted classes on journalistic writing according to Associated Press standards. From there, I began writing articles for the San Quentin News, became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and then went on to become a staff writer for California’s longest-running prison newspaper publication. San Quentin News is written and produced by prisoners and supported entirely by grants and donations.

Getting to this point in my prison life took me going through run-ins with officers, getting write-ups and losing a total of 18 months of good time credits. Finally, I realized that I was doing the same things in prison that I was doing outside of prison. I was staying grounded in criminal thinking. It was during one of my many rule violation hearings when a counselor made this comment, “He’s too old to be getting write-ups.” Her statement stayed in my head for weeks. I believe I got one more write-up after that before deciding enough was enough. Once I committed to that decision, all the other good things I mentioned previously began to come to fruition. As I write this letter, I am going on four years with any disciplinary actions.

All it took was for me to finally decide that I wanted a better path to travel and I had to create a brand new narrative. Writing became a part of it.

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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Vincent O'Bannon

Vincent O’Bannon is a writer incarcerated in California. He is a contributing writer for San Quentin News, and is a 2020 graduate of San Quentin’s Writers’ Guild class.