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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.

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.

Vincent O’Bannon is a 2020 graduate of San Quentin Writers’ Guild class and contributing writer for San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated.