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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.

Dear MYA Students,

Eight cents an hour. I want you to remember that. Paper chasing, hustling, stacking bands, whatever you want to call it, comes with consequences.

Eight cents an hour. One nickel and three pennies is what we make in San Quentin prison. What can you stack with that?

You can’t let the illusion of the rap and Instagram bowling lifestyle be how you judge life. Most millionaires or billionaires didn’t get rich overnight. Most rappers are athletes, who took five to 10 years to make it. Do the research.

What looks easy is far from it. Just because someone sees a finished product, doesn’t mean you know the struggles, failures and sacrifices that we needed to succeed. Being homeless, having to sleep from couch to couch, or being on welfare doesn’t sound sexy, but it’s a lot of successful people’s reality.

Do you know that Puff Daddy went to college? Or Rick Ross had a steady job before he became the “Don?”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to have money to take care of yourself and your family. But being poor is a state of mind. Being rich is how much knowledge you have because no one can ever take that from you.

With knowledge you can build a business or an empire. Getting knowledge takes time and sacrifices — no hanging out, no drugs. You can’t make a $1 million deal high so don’t believe your favorite rapper when he or she is talking like that.

It’s called acting. If they were really moving all this way or shooting all these people, they would be sitting in these tiny cells like us with life sentences, not knowing if or when you are ever going home.

The longer you are free, the more you can accomplish. Remember, like the old saying goes, so money is “fo shoo” money. If you don’t remember, you’ll be sitting in prison stocking eight cents an hour.

All the best,
Marcus “Wali” Henderson
San Quentin State Prison

MYA Students’ Responses

Thank you for writing. I now know that is not the life I want to live.

I’ve been thinking about a lot of things I can still do in my life. This program is my turning point. I have to do right for my sister and mom, and grandparents. They all have put so much energy into my life, so I will show them that I am changing for the better. 

I passed my GED test so when I get out I can get a good job and start living it on the safe. 

Thanks again for sharing. I hope you enjoy the sun and stay strong. You are in my prayers. 


Thank you for writing. I am from Deland, Florida, and I started getting locked up when I was 12 years old. Since I was 13, I’ve been doing drugs. Now at 15, I’m in a level six program, 3-1/2 hours from my home. 

My body is ruined from all the drugs. I can’t run far or do as much athletic stuff as I used to. I decided to get sober now and I’m pretty serious about it. 

I’m scared that when I get out they won’t drop my charge and I won’t be able to get a good job. 

Please write me back. I need advice. 


Thank you for writing us. How have you been? 

I understand I don’t ever want to go to prison. I have a daughter to take care of and a girlfriend that needs me. I will get a job before I go back to what I used to do. 

Everybody is rooting for me to get out of here, but you know when you are young and don’t want to listen to anybody. 

My aunt passed away while I was in this place. That hurt me badly, really bad. Everybody is always trying to lecture me, but I already know how it is when you are trying to feed your family, when you are trying to do this or that. 

People are always talking about what they did until that time hit them. I lost my whole family to the system. 

I miss my mother and father; my father was never there for me. But I don’t really care because I’m always going to be there for my daughter. I don’t wanna be like my dad. He is a deadbeat. I just wanted to let you know a little bit about me. 

C. E.

I want to thank you for writing the story. I understand a little of what you were going through because I am doing time at Miami Youth Academy. 

I regret what I did to my victims. I know I shouldn’t have committed the crime. But I have learned from my mistakes. So when I get out I want to get a job, take care of my family and live a good life. 

I realize that if you do crime all your life, you’re going to stay in jail. So I wish I could say sorry to all my victims for the crimes I did.

I even started to make songs because I want to become a rapper. But at the program it’s been hard for me because you can catch time for anything.


Thank you for your letter. I understand life‘s been difficult and it makes me reflect on my past mistakes and the bad choices I made. 

Now that I really think about it, I’ve had multiple chances. This is my second program and I’ve been doing the same things. 

I was making excuses but the only person to blame is me. I have greater things on the way. I’m going to focus on my growth and development. 


Thank you for writing. It means a lot to me. 

I was playing football and I gave it all up to do dumb stuff in the streets and making a little money by ceiling. I could’ve just waited those 10 years and been a millionaire. 

I saw playing football freshman year and started hanging out with the wrong people, which brought me down — bad grades, always smoking and doing the wrong thing. 

Every day I’m in this program I always say I’m going to change, but I don’t. I need to start and force myself to listen. When I get out I’m going to completely change my life around, so my mom and my family could be proud, and so I can finally be proud of myself. 


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.

Marcus "Wali" Henderson is the former editor-in-chief of San Quentin News, an award-winning newspaper published out of San Quentin State Prison in California, where he is incarcerated. He became a reporter the day he arrived at San Quentin.

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.