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Line drawing of a group of people with their arms around each other's shoulders.
Line illustration by Tetiana Garkusha on iStock

Prison is inhospitable to the cultivation of relationships. Communication with the outside world costs money. Visits from loved ones, if they happen at all, can require lengthy road trips and compliance with onerous prison rules. And mail can be held up, sometimes inexplicably, for long periods of time. 

But that doesn’t stop incarcerated people from doing what they can to invest in friendships inside. In many stories published by Prison Journalism Project, contributors have written about the people in their lives whose support, intelligence and generosity have helped stave off the pain of the profoundly isolating conditions that define so much of prison life.

In the stories collected here, incarcerated writers explore relationships that are possible behind prison walls despite their confinement. They underscore the singular power of friendship to help us feel more alive, and more human. 

Human Dignity, Compassion Supercede Race in Tough Timesby Walter Hart: Hart, a Black barber, writes about his experience caring for an older white man after the man was assaulted. Hart’s act of kindness inspired others, who in turn gifted the injured man with items that made him feel welcomed and safe despite the unspoken racial codes of prison. 

Restorative Justice Circles Help Many Address Violence, Traumaby Christopher Blackwell: Blackwell expands on the idea of breaking conventions in this piece about participating in a restorative justice circle in his Washington state prison. While he initially felt awkward about the intimate nature of the program, he and his peers learned together that “healed people heal people.”

Line drawing of a group of people with their arms around each other's shoulders.

Family Created Behind the Wallsby Quincy Jones: This poem is a powerful testimony about the transformative potential of friendships formed in prison. Jones writes: “I feel more accepted from behind the walls than I felt / When I was free.” 

A man in prison holding binoculars stands tall among his peers and looks to the future

My Friend Tin, A Brother in Self-Reformation Behind Prison Wallsby Dortell Williams: Williams honors a friend who served as a fellow traveler in the pursuit of education and self-betterment. 

Photo by @alfaz_ on Unsplash

Transformation Through an Unlikely Friendshipby C.R. Addleman: This essay discusses the author’s personal experience building a friendship with his mentee and the heartfelt moment they shared while discussing prison life. 

Being sentenced to die in prison is very difficult to process.

Misguided Loyalties and True Friendshipsby Jessie Milo: Milo writes about the reality of friendships — often shaped by the concept of forced loyalty — in prison and touches on the need to cut old toxic friends and habits to make room for more positive, healthy relationships. 

Two men shake hands as a sign of friendship

All My Friends Are in Prison” by Leo Cardez: Comparing his social life inside and outside of prison, Cardez finds more community in prison than he did as a free man, a fact he attributes to unresolved “inner trauma and deep feelings of inferiority.”

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.

Ianna Fenton is a Howard University alumna originally from Florida. She is an editorial assistant at PJP and has covered national broadcast stories including the United We Stand Summit at the White House.