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New York City's Times Square 1977
Photo credit: Derzsi Elekes Andor

For Black History Month, Prison Journalism Project curated a special selection of essays and poems from Black and mixed-race contributors. They write about memory, history and the complex experience of race and racism in America. Some celebrate achievements despite the obstacles, while others mourn tragedies of the present with deep roots in the past. 

It is widely known that the criminal justice system aggressively and disproportionately targets Black people. That doesn’t make the facts any less disturbing. The United States incarcerates more people — and at a higher rate — than any other country in the world. Black Americans comprise 13% of the U.S. population but 38% of the prison and jail population. And the incarcerated, of course, are not the only ones who suffer. According to, a bipartisan political organization with a focus on immigration and criminal justice, Black adults are three times more likely than White adults to have had a family member who is incarcerated. 

No list of stories about the Black experience in the U.S. prison system can be completely representative of everybody in the community. But we hope that these reflections, which PJP published between 2021 and today, shed light on some of the realities faced by Black Americans before, during and after incarceration. 

—PJP Editors

On the eve of his 60th birthday, Reginald Stephen reflects on his personal history growing up in Harlem and what conditions he encountered there that helped pave his way to prison. “[For] a Black child in 1970s New York, certain dangers lurked beneath the surface of all that excited and enticed,” Stephens writes. “It was not long before I discovered a tawdry underbelly.”

Guns, Ice Cream and the End of Innocence” is a spare and mournful essay in which Carnell Wingfield Jr. remembers a childhood of sweetness and violence. “When we were younger, I was the big bro that bought us all the ice creams from the ice cream truck after the driver sold us some weed. When my bros started killing people, I went from being their big bro to being their hustler. I sold them their guns.”

Shani Shay begins her defiant essay with a proclamation: “I am a 33-year-old Black woman whose very existence challenges assumptions about who can go to Harvard and what someone with early life trauma and incarceration can accomplish.” Shay goes on to chart her history from a life of exploitation and incarceration to the august halls of Harvard University. 

When Fred Barker was young, a kid asked him, “Are you Black or White?” And thus began a lifelong reckoning with the social fiction that is race and Barker’s own identity as a biracial man. Barker writes, “I was suspicious of white non-family members. I felt more comfortable and accepted in Black circles. That is, until someone would treat me like I wasn’t Black enough.”

In this essay decrying police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, Kevin D. Sawyer reminds readers of all the “Georges” who came before. “Half a century after George Jackson was murdered, with so many Black lives slain since then, it’s wise to remember that everyone is a potential George until wanton police violence against all people is stopped.”

Here, Jeffrey Shockley pens a poem dedicated to the people who perished in the Zong Massacre, in which 130 enslaved Africans were killed in 1781 by the crew of the British slave ship Zong.

In the biographical poem, “Confessions of a Young Black Male,” Steve Brooks reflects on the nihilistic worldview he adopted as a younger man. He writes, “A first born son struck dead by a plague, with blood on my doorstep, a rag on my head. / A servant of the people, suffering ills of a nation. / I broke several commandments because of temptation.”

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.

PJP Editors

PJP uses this byline for our Collections features and other roundups of PJP stories, as well as As Told To stories written by PJP staff. It is intended to signal the institution’s collective editorial voice.