Photo 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,

After serving 25 years in state prison, it takes faith to handle life’s ups and downs. The dramas of prison riots and cell searches take their toll. 

But it’s the death of a family member that hurts the most. I lost my wife, who died from a heart murmur. I was crushed. I talked to her on a Wednesday night and she died Thursday morning. 

My 9-year-old son had to break the news to me because everybody else was drowning in tears. The pain of losing a loved one never goes away. The guilt of not being there is the price I’m paying for causing others harm. 

But it is faith that tells you that you are good enough, that you can bring others joy and live out the dreams that you and your loved one shared. 

It’s now on us to carry on the dreams of those we have lost while incarcerated. You don’t have to be afraid of being “spiritual.”

Religion only means to re-align yourself with something bigger than you. It doesn’t matter what you believe in. What matters is that you check in with your eternal self. 

There are a lot of things in life we can’t control, but we can control how we respond.

I lost someone truly special to me, but what she wanted is for me to be the best me. I owe her and myself that. I can’t control what others may think I deserve. I just have to keep the faith. 

So keep the faith and don’t let others define you. 

MYA STUDENT’S RESPONSE

Dear Wali,

First, I’m very sorry to hear how you lost your wife. I can’t say I know how you feel. But after being in detention for a whole year, I’ve lost two of my friends who my mom has raised since they were 7 years old. 

When you’re inside the system, there’s nothing you can really do except cry and keep your head up high. Again, I’m sorry. I can’t imagine losing my mom while I’m here and I don’t really want to imagine that. 

I get it that you messed up and unfortunately you can’t go back in time to undo your mistakes. My advice to you is to make sure you drill into your son’s head every time you speak to him to not let people or the media influence him. I’ll tell you, man, that I’m not a follower, but people and the media fooled me big time. There’s nobody out here to blame except myself. 

Life is based upon your choices and decisions. If you make bad ones, then you’ll get a bad outcome. My mom didn’t raise a gangbanger, nor did she raise me to rob or do bad things, but I made poor decisions. It’s that simple.

Frankly, I’m happy I made those bad decisions as a juvenile, because I still have a second chance. 

The best thing they’ve had us do in here has been to read letters from you and the others at San Quentin, because now we know we have another choice. We can either take your advice and do better with ourselves or let it go in one ear and out the other. I plan on staying out of trouble when I go home.

Thank you and the others for taking your time to reach out to me and the other youth here. You guys have really made me reconsider the bad things I’ve thought about. I want to promise you that I’ll stay out of trouble and get a good job. 

By S.B. 

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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Marcus "Wali" Henderson

Marcus "Wali" Henderson is an editorial associate for the Prison Journalism Project and the editor-in-chief of San Quentin News. Marcus has said he never thought he would find more to his life than just doing time. The day he arrived at San Quentin State Prison, his old cellmate asked him to help cover a baseball game in which the prisoners were playing a team from outside. When the cellmate told Marcus to interview these people, his mouth dried up, and he realized he hadn't talked with anybody besides prisoners and guards for more than 15 years. That was his introduction as a reporter.

Students at Miami Youth Academy

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.