A Writer's Block by Rahsaan Thomas
I’d rather die than serve the rest of my life in prison but fear of God kept me from committing suicide. But I could provoke someone else who had nothing to lose to kill me. Standing behind my cell door, I glared through the round holes that made the door look like metal cheese. I waited for yard time, so I could go find trouble. The door whirred open on an electric track, and I broke from my cell, like a greyhound from a pen.
I’d find a bully. That way, I could tell myself he deserved whatever I gave him.
I power-walked along the second tier, past men waiting like soldiers in front of their racks for their cell doors to close. Most would wait until their doors shut before they headed outside; it was these militant acts of procedure that often separated “convicts” from victims.
“Slow down, young brother.” A man with graying hair and a young face raised his palm in front of his chest. His name was Sabir. “There’s nobody you can hurt that will get you out of prison. Maybe they will put you under the prison for a few years, but you’ll still be here.”
Taken aback that he knew my intentions, I slotted myself beside him and waited with him for his door to close.
“Why did you say that?” I asked
His gray knit kufi tilted to the side with the slight movement of his head. “I know your story. I was your story. If you let your rage rule, it will say a cage is where you belong. You have to find a way to make something of yourself no matter these circumstances. If you give up, they win.”
We carried our conversation with us down the stairs to the ground floor, through the metal detector, past guards who frisked us.
Outside, tattooed men competed on two sides of a basketball court segregated between the Blacks and the Mexicans. Men grunted through pull-ups on the side of the weight pile designated by the politics of prison for their race. On each side, men in pairs dropped to the ground and sprang to their feet doing burpees. “Can’t stop, won’t stop,” they chanted. Sweat soaked half-moons in men’s shorts as each side trained for ward with the other in heat that radiated in waves from the ground. All the yard needed was gasoline, and it would explode.
Sabir and I walked around a paved track, talking to each other but watching the yard. “Muhammad Ali’s strategy was to get his opponents pissed off so they would react in anger,” Sabir said. “Then he would pick them apart because angry men don’t think straight. That’s what many of us allow adversity to do. Pick our angry hearts apart.”
I resisted his advice. I needed anger to tamp down my fear. Maybe when I got back to society, I could overcome adversities with smiles, but whatever weakness I revealed here would follow me for my entire life sentence.
“That would have been good advice on the streets,” I said. “It’s over now.”
“It’s never over. You have to have faith, and there is no faith without endurance. We have life sentences, but we have eternity to face after that. Keep faith and Allah will reward you in paradise.”
Maybe Sabir made sense. I had already messed this life up; I didn’t want to blow the afterlife, too.
I didn’t have a religion, but I did believe in God. I went to both Islamic and Christian services, searching for meaning.
A few weeks later, I went to the beginner’s Islamic class that took place before Friday services. The teacher wasn’t present when I walked into a classroom situated just outside the Mosque. Five men sat in folding chairs facing a chalkboard with the alphabet written in Arabic letters. There was Big Cee, whose right eye looked like raw meat encased in a half-closed eyelid from an old injury. Near Big Cee, Bish – a Muslim from Toledo – stared at three men across the room who were talking about sports. Bish hated wasting time on what he considered frivolous topics while we awaited the teacher.
“How can we stop the next generation from following our footsteps?” Dreadlocks slipped from his shoulder as Bish took me in with his gaze.
Big Cee trained his good eye on Bish. “Ain’t nothing we can do from here. Nothing.”
“There’s always something we can do,” Bish said. “We did a good job destroying, now we need to figure out a way to do a good job rebuilding.”
“Homie, we’re in prison,” Big Cee said. “What we gonna build in here?”
Big Cee was in pain, ashamed of his powerlessness. I knew his story. I was his story.
“We aren’t helpless,” I said. “We can tell youngsters about our lives so those following our footsteps can see where they lead. We can show them we arne’t legends, we’re losers.”
“I’ll get right on that with my one collect call a month,” Cee said.
“We have more than that.” I’d been thinking about Tookie Williams. He wrote books from Death Row encouraging children not to join gangs. He went to prison as a gang member but was executed as a Nobel Peace Prize nominated author. “We have our stories. We can write about our lives like Tookie.”
The idea of writing wasn’t new to me. Once, a friend had suggested we write street
literature. Now, I was on fire with the idea. I couldn’t see a bright end in a life sentence, but I could see light in writing a novel. I imagined teenagers turning their lives around because of my story. I saw my family, my mother, and my sons talking about me with pride.
I wrote to explore the reasons I committed crimes. I wrote about trying to prove my worth in all the wrong ways. I wrote about the night my little brother screamed – the night a bullet burned away our youth.
I asked friends and family to type my stories for me. I hoped they’d find editors to bring my work to a professional level, but even when prison stops your world, life goes on for those outside. They loved me; they wanted to give me hope, but they didn’t have the time to chase their dreams and mine.
It took seven frustrating years for it to sink in: I was on my own in this.
I continued without knowing what to do with my stories. Writing kept me out of trouble by requiring me to create a space outside of racial politics in California prisons. Writing became the mother I finally listened to, the school counselor who wanted to save me, the friend who convinced me to seek therapy. I saw this, so I kept writing into the silence. After 13 years, the state transferred me to a unique prison, a place where the silence broke before like-minded voices.
When the bus drove me on to San Quentin State Prison’s yard, I stared out the window at a bunch of geese and seagulls wobbling side-to-side near men with PRISONER in yellow letters on their blue denim clothes. In other prisons where I’d lived, seagulls ventured onto the yard when we were in our cells. Here, they waddled undisturbed. More shocking, people from the free world walked among the men in blue, smiling and talking. What kind of world was this where geese mingled with the incarcerated and free people didn’t need correctional officers to escort them?
When I exited the bus, there was a familiar face smiling at me. He was just outside the gate that separated the receiving area from the main yard.
“Hey, what’s up,” Moe said. We’d met while doing time in California Men’s Colony. “I heard you were coming here.”
“Who are all those people on the yard?” I asked.
“You are gonna love it here. Those are volunteers that teach college classes, anger management, writing—”
“Writing classes? Where?”
“I’ll show you.”
After dinner that Wednesday, I walked into a small room where paintings in various stages of completion stood on easels along the walls. Mismatched chairs formed a circle around the room. Zoe, a small lady with long, reddish hair and cat-gray eyes sat among 15 men.
A bald writer with a silver Santa Claus beard read a tale of a suicide that landed the deceased in a place somewhere between Dante’s Inferno and Alice’s Wonderland. When he finished, the writers in the room offered encouragement and feedback.
“Yeah, Paul, that was a chilling tale,” Zoe said. I’d come to learn she always commented last. “I love the way you took a suicide and turned into a journey of the imagination. I … I kind of had trouble following where the character was at times.”
I soaked in the guidance she gave that night and every Wednesday night after that. I needed it. I sat in her class for months and took the constructive criticisms about other’s work and applied it in my cell to my own. One of the writing prompts Zoe handed out asked me to write about learning a lesson too late, and from her prompt came “One Bad Apple.”
After a few months, my turn to read came. For the first time, someone besides me was going to hear a story I’d written. My hands shook and stuck to the pages. My first reading involved a deeply personal story that sometimes reduces me to tears.
Paul interrupted me when I started. He spread his hand in a calming gesture. “Slow down.”
I began again: “Big brothers are supposed to protect little brothers, not the other way around.” I continued to read a fictional account of my weakest moment. I’d run and abandoned my brother who’d been shot. I’d never admitted fear in prison – you can’t do that – and I wondered if I’d suffer for revealing myself to these men sitting in a circle.
Turk, a prolific writer from Compton raised his hand to speak. “I didn’t know you could write like that.” The room murmured approval. One by one, each writer told me what they loved about my story.
“I’m sorry about your brother, man.”
“That took courage to write.”
“Bro, I’ve spent my whole life afraid. Keep writing.”
They’d heard me.
Then came Zoe. I felt anxious for her praise because she’d earned a Master of Fine Arts. Her approval would signal that I wrote well enough to cross the barrier of prison walls.
“Yeah Rahsaan, that was a great first read….”
Rahsaan Thomas grew up in New York City, but he writes from a cell in California. He’s a staff writer for San Quentin News and the co-author of Uncaged Stories. He has also been published in The Marshall Project, Missouri Review’s Literature on Lockdown, Life of the Law, The Beat Within, & Brothers in Pen’s 2014 & 2015 anthologies.
At age 45, he became a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and a co-founder of Prison Renaissance.