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Every month, the first item on my “shopping list” is a yellow legal pad of paper I buy for $1.89 at my prison’s store. In this concrete tomb, I do not have the luxury of a smartphone to jot down story ideas, a tablet to journal or a laptop to type up my essays. What I have to record my thoughts, hopes and reflections are my legal pads and $.25 “seg” pens (the innards of a real pen). They are enough. 

Writing by hand is hard. When I arrived at prison, I was overly dependent on technology. My penmanship was horrendous, my spelling suspect, and I had completely forgotten how to write in cursive. 

But, over time, I got better — now I actually enjoy writing by hand and I do not cramp up as quickly. Instead of tech gadgets, my cell is littered with yellow writing pads. I have one on the desk, another next to my bunk and back-ups in my legal box. 

Everything I have written since I was entombed has been jotted down on one of these yellow lifesavers: every desperate letter to my family, every hopeful appeal to the courts, every remorseful journal entry, as well as the mundane, like my commissary shopping list or Bible study homework. 

In the “world” — what we inmates refer to as life beyond the walls — my only writing paper had been a beautiful leather bound journal I bought on a trip to Argentina. I never used it — I couldn’t bring myself to mar it with my simple scribblings. 

In contrast, these cheap, easily replaceable pads seem ideal for wistful ponderings and random thoughts. 

More than anything, my notepad is a gentle reminder to continue to hope and to live for purpose. I am conscious that I do not have that many more legal pads left before my release, so it is imperative that I make the most of them all. 

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.

Leo Cardez is a writer and editor of the prison newspaper, Dixon Digest. Cardez volunteers as an Advisory Board Member of Prison Health News and serves on a committee for College Guild. He is incarcerated in Illinois. Leo Cardez is his pen name.