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Stack of worn journals
Photo by Ioann-Mark Kuznietsov on Unsplash

Before I started my journal, my philosophy on writing had always been simple: If something isn’t written down, it can’t be used against you. 

But then I discovered the journaling program at Prisoner Express — a nationwide organization providing incarcerated people information, education and opportunities for creative self-expression from its headquarters at the Durland Alternatives Library in Ithaca, New York. 

Incarcerated at the Huntsville Unit, home to Texas’ execution chamber, I wrote the first page of my journal in May 2018. At the time of this writing, I had added over 7,600 more.

I have spent $418.17 on my journal, including $299.28 in postage and $36.10 on ink pens. I have mailed my entries to Prisoner Express in 315 envelopes so they can be included in the organization’s archives. 

When I first began writing, I had problems acquiring paper. I wrote my entries on scraps — sometimes I taped them together to make a full page. Now I have a regular supply of 50-sheet typing pads that cost $1.10 each at the commissary, or the prison version of a corner store. The ink pens I use are very low-quality. As you write, you can see the ink level drop. There have been instances in which an ink pen only lasted me three or four days. In 2022, I used 29 ink pens.

I have written in my journal on 680 separate days, many consecutively, others weeks apart. For long periods of time, I have written daily entries as soon as I wake, usually at 3 a.m. In one day, I might write anywhere from eight to 48 pages. I send one, four or 14 sheets of paper at a time in an envelope to Prison Express, which uploads them to its online journal archive.

When I started writing my journal, I thought there would be plenty of things I would never write down. Today, I’m surprised at how much I have opened up on the page.

I have always thought of myself as a decent writer, but my writing has vastly improved since I started journaling. These days, I edit each piece I write to make sure it is perfect. When I read a book, I notice ways that the author could have improved a sentence. 

Journaling has improved not only my writing, but my memory too. I can even recall  sentences I have written in my journal from years ago. I can remember word for word, for example, a haunting passage I wrote in September 2019: “I decide to indulge in the lunch feast. After all, execution day only comes around once per week. Right now there’s six people on the execution calendar.” 

Writing in my journal has also provided me an outlet for processing any indignation I feel over encounters with others around me. Once I write about some slight, I can let it go and, for the most part, not be resentful anymore.

I have received 89 letters from students at Cornell University, with whom I have enjoyed intelligent conversations on a wide variety of topics. 

It warms my heart when a student says my writing and wisdom have given them valuable insights they can apply to their lives. It awes me that they see me as a regular person. Back when I was their age, I would have never corresponded with prisoners.

In the five years since I started journaling, I have learned that writing is so much more than evidence. Writing for others forces you to think deeply about how you’ve spent your life, so that you can make sense of it.

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.

Cesar Hernandez is a writer incarcerated in Texas.