Every week, the team at Prison Journalism Project selects a single story to highlight some of the best writing on our site, whether a personal essay, thoughtful opinion piece or detailed reporting on prison conditions — all of which aims to bring fresh insight and transparency to the world of mass incarceration.

Week of November 29, 2021

In ”Prison Pizza on a Budget,“ writer Darrell Whitlock sets a scene that is seldom portrayed in fictionalized renditions of prison life: two individuals craving junk food. Using wry humor in his narration, Whitlock walks the reader through his recipe for making ”prison pizza.“ The camaraderie he shares with his cellmate in the process gives a small window into the moments of humanity that exist behind bars but are unseen.

Walter Hart’s timely piece ”Humanity Supersedes Everything Else on Thanksgiving“ tells the story of a multicultural Thanksgiving meal in prison. It highlights the creativity, diversity and generosity seen behind bars, with four men from different backgrounds coming together to make signature dishes for sharing.

This week we chose “Shakedown Coming When Water Is Cut Off” by Kenneth M. Key. Through vivid details and evenness in tone, the reader is invited to feel just how disruptive and intrusive the cell searching process is. Key uses small details like clothing, temperature, posture and scenery to draw the reader into his experience. He recounts events without leaning into melodrama, giving the reader an opportunity to feel the weight of his words. It’s a truly powerful piece that will likely stay with readers for quite some time.

As the pandemic eases in many parts of the United States, it’s easy to forget that a return to a version of normal may still be far off for many — or most — in corrections facilities. We appreciated Joe Garcia’s look into how policies around testing and quarantine can erode the trust incarcerated people have in the system. “Under Quarantine, Confined in Solitary” was also well executed, demonstrating journalistic integrity in its framing and quotes. 

For this week’s Story of the Week, we chose Colin Randolph‘s “The Prison of Perception: The Mind Also Incarcerates Each of Us.” Using his own experiences, Colin discusses how gang culture instills a mentality of violence in young people before they are incarcerated. His writing is thoughtful and introspective. He juxtaposes his past actions and thinking with his present outlook on life as he describes the “mental prison” he found himself in before coming to prison. 

Few things appeal to our best selves more than caring for an animal, as this week‘s two Stories of the Week, make clear. Lawrence May’s “Dog Rehab Program Builds Companionship, Purpose for Those in Prison” explains how giving injured dogs a new chance at life is so meaningful for men who work for the Paws For Life K9 Rescue Program at California State Prison, Lancaster. In “Tiny Meows Warm Our Hearts,” Jessie Milo describes the heart-melting impact of caring for the wild kittens who live on the yard at California State Prison, Corcoran. In a place where companion animals are not allowed, the chance to shower these creatures with food and love is a compelling antidote to loneliness and a validation of purpose all pet-lovers will recognize.

Week of October 18, 2021

Timothy Hicks‘ “Rehabilitation Through Tennis,” which PJP republished from San Quentin News at San Quentin State Prison, reports on one man’s experience in sports, how it contributed to his self-esteem and how he eventually became the commissioner of the tennis program. Timothy also raised an important question about the tennis program’s future after the commissioner, Orlando “Duck” Harris, is released on parole. 

Dean, an incarcerated writer in California, says he is passionate about steering young men away from the culture of violence that he was part of when he was a gang member. In “You‘re My Hero: Sharing Our Humanity Through the Bars of a Cell Door,” Dean uses dialogue to bring an encounter with a corrections officer alive. The negotiation he describes gives readers a real insight into the dynamics between a prisoner and a corrections officer, and the helplessness one feels while so reliant on someone else for their safety. The piece was a great example of a story with a larger point that leaves a lasting impression. 

Week of October 4, 2021

In “I am Not a Number,” Jonathan Loppnow, a writer in Washington state, highlights the way in which incarcerated people lose their humanity once they become part of the system. Jonathan draws on his own experience to describe how an incarcerated person‘s individuality and their identity is often stripped away, reduced to a number. The piece also offers a glimpse into the ways in which incarcerated individuals become victims of their own environment. It begs the question of whether or not the prison system actually plays a reformative role or does the opposite. It‘s inspiring that the author remains positive, compassionate and still faithful that change is possible if given a chance. 

Week of September 27, 2021

“Caring for a Dying Man” by Rick Allan Vance is a heartfelt and beautiful meditation on death and friendship. Vance shows the emotional toll of his position in the palliative care unit and the connections he forges with terminally ill people.

In “Healing From Hurt: Reflections on Recovering From Childhood Trauma” by Edwin E. Chavez, the writer interviewed others at his prison and wove in their comments and experiences as he reflected on his traumatic events during his childhood. In doing so, he sheds light on one of the reasons and circumstances that attract people to gangs. He also writes about his transformation and how he is moving forward to a new life. His article contains both painful memories and new hope.

Week of September 13, 2021

Aaron McCoy’s poem “Prison is Like a Fiery Furnace” deftly combines an extended metaphor of metallurgy with honest and courageous self-assessment. It does so through concise wording and controlled syntax.

We chose two stories for the week of September 6 because we wanted to highlight the terrible cost to families who are caught in the cycle of incarceration in the U.S. As one of the 92% of incarcerated men who are fathers, James Lenoir in Illinois wrote about the helplessness he feels as his family was torn apart by his incarceration and his son and nephew got involved in gangs.

In “Mother in Prison, Son in Jail,” Chanell Burnette in Virginia wrote from a mother‘s perspective about the pain of not being able to provide guidance and support to her son in jail. Both writers‘ pieces were written honestly and starkly, and together, they bring to life the painful reality of incarceration.

As we continue to struggle with the global pandemic, Christopher Blackwell paints a concise and clear picture of the particular burden that incarcerated people bear. Without lessening the responsibility of the choices made, Chris illustrates the trauma that many people inside deal with every day and reminds us that we are all human, and anyone can struggle with depression.

Week of August 23, 2021

In this powerful take on empathy, Shakur shows us how mass incarceration has turned society into a devastating game of far more chutes than ladders: “Prison doesn’t reform, it tears down and disables. It’s a choke-hold that tightens the longer you stay down, and it can hold you down for years.” The name of the game? Reality.

As the delta variant spreads, we feel grateful for Tariq’s piece on the realities of this new spike behind the wall. Reporting from New Jersey State Prison, Tariq details the rise in COVID-19 cases and the repercussions this may have for those incarcerated there. For many PJP writers, the story of outbreaks and cycles of extended isolation is all too familiar. Tariq’s detailed findings and clear relay of the facts exemplify the kind of journalism we aim to provide our readers with at PJP. 

Charles N. Diorio’s piece on the role that internet connectivity and technology play in a prison is our pick this week. His writing was balanced, well-researched and thoughtful, and he addressed a topic that lots of people outside the prison system have questions about. He did an excellent job of highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of the current system in Massachusetts.

Week of August 2, 2021

Some of our favorite pieces are those that open our eyes to the unique and unknown challenges of prison life. In “Not Even a Sip of Water,” Frederick Mason described how incarcerated individuals have been unable to use water fountains in some areas of his prison due to COVID-19. While a lack of water fountains might be a minor annoyance outside of prison, Mason showed us how the consequences are significant in a world where the opportunities to hydrate are otherwise limited. Without Mason‘s story, we would have remained in the dark about one challenge of pandemic prison life: accessing water.

Week of July 26, 2021

We have recently been hearing a lot about how representation matters, especially on media platforms that are used by many. Kory “Hussain” McClary extends this discussion to prisons and the TV channels that they have access to as incarcerated individuals from marginalised and suppressed communities. He talks about how watching a certain channel — Revolt TV — where they talk about the hip-hop industry is a small source of entertainment and information that they can relate to and enjoy versus other channels, which are largely chosen by the White prison guards and often present biased accounts. It forces the readers to think about the small things that could provide incarcerated individuals with the hope of improvement and how access to those things should be increased. 

We were moved by Taylor’s account of how their views changed before and after the pandemic and how they made the best out of the terrible situation by changing their mindset and actions. Also knowing that COVID-19 precautions have been taken seriously inside, it gives hope that incarcerated individuals aren’t forgotten when it comes to dealing with this virus.

In fewer than 400 words, author Jeff Shockley’s account transforms the ordinary activity of a haircut into a personal revolution. The piece’s format as a letter creates a sense of friendliness, which Shockley rips away in unmasking humanity’s complacency. One can see that Shockley possesses a pronounced curiosity that is as fascinating as it is voracious. 

Writer Anthony Ehlers eloquently illuminates the harrowing reality of prison life in this week‘s Story of the Week. In describing the dehumanizing conditions in every sphere of prison life — from regular strip searches to the lack of adequate medical and mental health care to the prison number that replaced his name — Ehlers offers a glimpse into the suffering and powerlessness of people behind bars.

Week of June 28, 2021

For the story of the week, we have chosen Bob R. Williams Jr.‘s “Planning for Death.” Having sat on death row for the past 24 years, Williams has had an intimate struggle with mortality. In his story, he kindly shares the perspective he has gained from living everyday with the knowledge of his impending execution. William‘s incredible message about life from his perspective is vitally important as a work of philosophical writing and acutely deserving of recognition.

Week of June 21, 2021

This story came in the middle of Father‘s Day celebrations and was a hauntingly beautiful narrative by the author. A brutally honest read, it took us through the journey of parenting from behind bars, and how the longing for loved one can appear in multitudes — from the excitement making the author “almost drink the brownish waste that comes from the sink” to his daughter requesting that he could “die twice already” just so she can have him home. It shows us all the forms love can exist in. We are highlighting this story for its raw honesty and realities that the author so poignantly shares with his readers.

Week of June 14, 2021

We felt this essay offered valuable insight into a world often ignored. This piece highlighted the pressing issues of youth incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline. Author Brandon J. Baker draws upon his own experiences in juvenile detention to offer details about what children go through in such detention programs and facilities. His stories are heartbreaking and often overlooked, yet all too real. The cruelty children face in such conditions is a systemic problem, related to classism and racism. 

Baker‘s call to action is a powerfully compassionate one: “Show grace to at-risk youth,” and never give up on our young people. There is always hope they can change, but only if they are given the chance to do so. 

In “The Importance of History,” Patricia Elane Trimble reflects on the Stonewall Riots of 1969 and other moments throughout history when the LGBTQ+ community has fought for freedom. Trimble focuses on the oppression that trans women in particular have faced, and points to education as a way to heal and learn from mistakes of the past. “Speaking of history whenever you have an audience often results in a seed being planted in the mind of even the most negative of persons,” she writes.

George T. Wilkerson’s “Talking to My Mom in Autumn” is a gentle, haunting poem on the challenge of maintaining relationships while in prison. It’s also a great example of how well poetry can serve journalistic ends when it documents the feel of prison life through close observation. Focused on one prepaid phone call the author made to his mom, the poem is filled with concrete and telling detail. Wilkerson notices the precise wording of the call’s pre-recorded announcement requiring her to “accept it,” and the “catalog of mundanities” his mother reports from home — falling leaves, creaky knees, a dying vegetable garden. In just 134 words, this piece tells us so much about the ability of telephone calls to connect and to alienate. Readers will come away understanding the heavy meaning of “pressing 5” on a prepaid call even if they don’t have a friend or loved one in prison.

We chose David Jones’ piece “Squash the Negative Sentiment” to be our ninth Story of the Week winner because of the simple but poignant truth it bears about trying to fit in (or trying not to). “Feelings are very important. But they come and go, and they can lie to you,” writes Jones. While the outpouring of emotion from recent social justice protests feels necessary in some ways, Jones’ piece reminds us that feelings are not always the most efficient path to creating the change you wish to see around you. We can validate the existence of the emotions we feel, sit with them, and listen to them. However, one must recognize that critical thinking, strong listening skills and empathy are needed to intersect our emotions so to be able to use them in a productive way.

When it comes to incarceration statistics, it is often too easy to divorce the charts and metrics from the real, human stories behind each number. We chose this piece by Charles Crowe because of how it highlights the strain placed on family dynamics. Crowe writes of his experience nurturing his relationship with his grandchildren by reading to them over evening phone slots, reading along on matching book sets despite the funny looks he gets from his fellow inmates. It is a heartbreaking reality that so many men are separated from their loved ones, but the strength of these familial ties still extends past the carceral system for people like Crowe, one reading session at a time.

It has been refreshing to read and hear stories of people reuniting with their loved ones and slowly adjusting to life outside of quarantine. However, this story transports readers to a reopening scene that few reporters have access to: San Quentin State Prison’s main recreational yard. With quotes from those working and living within San Quentin, the story is a thoroughly reported look into one prison as it opens up with the rest of the country.

Art is a powerful force and an essential part of the human existence. Art heals, tells stories, helps people make sense of their existence, promotes social change, and connects people to other people and the world. This piece by Bobby Bostic describes the importance and value of art to incarcerated people and underlines why art should be an essential part of prison life.

We were struck by how the layers of Shon Pernice’s piece flow quickly, beautifully arranged and introspective. While the writer expertly navigates the process and effects of emotional detachment through the narrative, it is when he describes which parts of human flesh dogs prefer that we can begin to imagine the weight of what he has seen. But he doesn’t present it in a grotesque way.

We could feel Shon reaching out for help when he got back home, trying to show his pictures, trying to explain. The metaphor of the emotional tourniquet is again illustrative and functional; an image that would be a powerful tool when talking with others who are doing their own soul-searching. We came away from this thinking about just how much America asks of its soldiers. How can we expect them to just — poof — back into their lives after existing in such extreme situations? Likewise, how can we expect the same of those who have been inside America’s prisons?

In “Precautions or Punishment,” Sheldon P. Johnson pleads to humanize prisoners during COVID-19. Here, we have an inside look at what’s going on behind bars and how COVID-19 has further isolated those already in isolation. One of the closing lines says it best: “Although we have been convicted of felonies, we have not lost our rights to love, to express ourselves, to live and to breathe.”

This story represents the true fear that has been felt by many inmates during the pandemic. Knowing that all the symptoms that you have point to COVID-19 but getting very little help adds to the terror of this disease inside a prison. 

Week of April 5, 2021

We chose this publication for “Story of the Week” due to the intimate view of the inner workings of a prison from the shoes of someone who is incarcerated. In this piece, Dorothy Maraglino takes us through a tour of the prison she is spending the rest of her life in and the lack of humanity within the system. Dorothy sheds light on the precarious conditions of the prison and the substandard basic resources offered to inmates. Dorothy highlights that the prison system is a result of the society we have created. The system contributes to hopelessness and the dismissive approach we foster regarding people in need of support.

To kick off Prison Journalism Project’s Story of the Week, we have chosen Calen Whidden‘s “You Want Onions With That?” In this piece, the writer captured a distinct scene from behind bars with both humor and insight, bringing the reader into a world that we may never have experienced otherwise. His observations drew you into the moment and the dynamics of the characters. It‘s a hysterical story of defiance and ingenuity which speaks to the resilience of the human spirit.