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My voice is all I have and my words are my power, the weapon I use to shape my destiny. I choose my words very carefully to impact those who read them. 

I have recently begun to lift my voice up and share my journey through these past 16 years of incarceration. I share my peregrination in hopes of providing insight into the real prison experience — the pain, the heartache, the desperation. This is the part of the story often left untold.

As I look around the Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women, I am deeply troubled by the things that I see. 

This change is in part because the prison population has grown younger. Society is incarcerating babies. They are locking away children who are doomed to spend a nonsensical amount of time trapped behind bars. They are children who may have lost their parents to the carceral system, some for decades. 

Growing up without parents is traumatizing for a child, and many do not share their experiences with others. Instead, that pain stays bottled up inside until the fateful day it explodes, resulting in their own encounter with the justice system. Poor kids (my own included). 

I don’t know how we fix this, but it could start with a little bit of compassion. Those placed in a position of authority over us must lead by example. This is not what currently occurs behind these walls. 

If those in charge make clear that they do not care about us, then how can they expect us to care for one another? The sad reality is that they do not care if we care for one another, either. Our lives do not matter to the administration. This attitude trickles down the line right into the inmate population.

I find myself severely disturbed by the things that I witness on a daily basis. 

It is true that incarceration is an uphill battle and only the strong survive. You can allow it to make or break you: The choice is ultimately yours. 

But too many are sinking all around me. I chose to swim because I have two wonderful sons to be an example for. Growing up without me has been devastating enough, so I choose to show them that it is possible for good to arise out of a bad situation. Disappointing them or my family again is not an option.

Society already marginalizes those of us who have been to prison. I don’t ever want my children or my family to be weighed down by the title society will place on me — ex-con, ex-felon. I am so much more than that.

I would like to prove to society that our mistakes do not define us as individuals. Many of the world’s most talented individuals are trapped inside these cinder block walls. But we remain oppressed, depressed, marginalized and ostracized.

I am only one person: one voice elevated and resonating through the silence. I am constantly trying to encourage others to join in the fight for our justice. Sadly, I stand alone too often. 

The determining factor is the mindset of the individual. True change must come from a hunger within, a desire to win and overcome. 

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.

Chanell Burnette is a writer incarcerated in Virginia.