Photo by Bank Phrom on Unsplash

“Keep your circle small, and your table smaller.” That was the mantra I heard when I arrived at California State Prison (CSP) Solano five years ago.

Already having served more than 20 years of a sentence of life without possibility of parole (LWOP), I was used to the ebb and flow of prison politics. 

The learning curve in prison cuts a little sharper than on the streets. The knowledge of how to carry a gun was replaced by how to carry a handmade knife between my buttocks in the “Serengeti.” Serengeti was the name given to some prison yards due to their dry, hot and dust-filled climates, where predator-versus-prey-like situations take place.

Taking the place of a bulletproof vest was an oversized blue denim jacket with copies of magazines stitched into the lining. It was not expected to stop a bullet of course, but perhaps it could detour a wayward knife stab if attacked. 

The daily racial tension that led to race riots, lockdowns, stabbings, assaults from both prisoners and staff, was normal for me. After all, the primary language in prison is violence.

Yet, somehow, I found myself in a prison yard that exhibited the exact opposite culture. It was a shock. 

Gone were the gun towers. Men I had been with in past prisons were now working to get their sentences commuted and standing before the parole board. Some of them had been on San Quentin State Prison’s death row.

I recall seeing three individuals who stood out from the population. When I saw them, I knew, whatever they were a part of, I wanted in.

Two of them, Joseph Pagaduan and Julian Glenn Padgett, had been editors of the now-defunct prison publication, “Solano Vision News.” The other was its photo editor, Steve Drown.

What made them stand out was the ease with which they seemed to move as a trio. They had a collective confidence that came from having a purpose. “Keep your circle small,” I was reminded. 

After finding some traction in the program, I got into a few self-help groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous and anger management. I joined the Toastmaster public speaking group, then dabbled in Performances at Solano (P@S), a program in which incarcerated men wrote and performed original plays and Shakespeare. Doing these things helped me expand my comfort zone. 

But nothing inspired me more than watching those three editors.

Because of them, and a little personal persistence, I find myself the current editor-in-chief of CSP-Solano’s latest prisoner publication, “The Solano Chronicle.”

The conversation I have with myself guides me toward two beliefs. First, the power behind “The Solano Chronicle” is not its writers, but its readers. Second, it is not and never will be our job to help others find their voice, only to amplify the one they already have.

During my tenure, I hope to  address, educate, lead, comfort, adapt, and listen to the many diverse voices and needs at this prison.

It is my goal to bring as much of the population’s voice to publication as possible. At the same time, I will include things that are relevant and informative to the different segments of my readership.

I have already learned some things about myself. For example, I know I’m capable of success, happiness, and honest love from others as well as myself. But what I’ve learned the most is that I am capable of change. 

As a LWOP, I don’t know if I’ll ever get commuted. I hope to turn this campus into something better than it was when I arrived about 30 years ago.

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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R.J. Murphy

R.J. Murphy is the editor-in-chief of "The Solano Chronicle" at California State Prison Solano. He is involved in his community as a playwright addressing PTSD in veterans, breaking down racial divides and supporting those who lose loved ones.