student writing exam

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Prison journalism: How a pen helped me escape prison

Serving a life sentence amid the noise and violence of prison can be maddening (literally). Here’s how I broke free (metaphorically).

student writing exam

Photo: Adobe Stock

Prison Journalism Project trains incarcerated writers to become journalists and publishes their stories. Subscribe to Inside Story to receive exclusive behind-the-scene looks at our best stories, as well as author profiles and other insights.

Growing up, I hated writing. I abhorred everything about it, from the rules of grammar to dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. But most of all, I viewed the physical labor of writing (especially in cursive) through eyes of detestation. It did not help that I possessed the worst handwriting since chicken scratch became a descriptive term for chirography. I had the scratch of a one-legged, one-winged rooster.

My mom would force me to practice my scribbling, which only intensified my loathing. I had more important activities to spend my time on, and all of them revolved around the verb “play.” 

I can still picture myself sitting on the couch, biting my tongue in concentration, knuckles white from gripping the pencil so tightly, trying to design the perfect ABC’s in cursive, then bursting into tears when my mom’s boyfriend would assault my confidence with nasty words no 11-year-old should hear. Perhaps that abuse played a role in my life without parole.

In many ways my troubles in school began in my English writing class. I was so afraid that my teacher, Mrs. Smith, would call on me to demonstrate my cursive alphabet on the chalkboard, I would skip class. 

Soon, skipping class evolved into skipping the entire day. From there the wave of academic failure swelled like a tsunami. Once unleashed, there was no turning it back. I quit school in the eighth grade at age 16. I did not lack intelligence, but I flunked the attendance test every time.

But thirty years later, I have a GED. 

Here is another change from back then. Today I love the art of prose. In fact, if it were not for writing, I would have lost my sanity years ago. I still have a testy relationship with the rules of grammar. But, like a compound subject, writing and I are never separated.

ALSO READ: Prison journalism: My first hours after prison


My romance with writing began 12 years ago. I was in segregation (inside the most violent prison in North Carolina) when a pen saved me. 

Hanging by a thread, I was stalking to and fro in my cell, like a psycho off his meds. Senseless noise gnawed at me. The beating in the cellblock banged on like thunder; the yelling and screaming did not pause for breath. The cackling of the intercom, announcing inmate disturbances and officer distress calls, burned my nerves. I was on a collision course with psychosis.

ALSO READ: Prison journalism: My first hours after prison

I crammed neon pink and yellow Laser Lite earplugs so deep in my ears I developed an earache. But even the earplugs failed to silence the ruckus. They only tempered it. Though my temper raged, I pleaded for peace. I fell to my knees and prayed for it, but God did not hear me over the clamour. On the brink of needing a straitjacket, I slumped on my bunk, going mad. I caressed the ends of my bedsheets, contemplating which end to tie around my neck. 

Fearing suicide, I knew I needed an escape from my insane surroundings. I scrambled about my cell, looking for a distraction. Flipping my mattress over, I discovered an old XXL magazine I had thumbed through a hundred times. I tossed it in the air. “Useless,” I thought. A library book, George R.R. Martin’s “A Feast for Crows,” caught my eye next. But I flung it out of my way, for I had already read it four times. Grasping my Sony radio, I thrust the coconut-white JVC earbuds into my ears. A waste of time. How many times can you listen to Katy Perry sing “I Kissed a Girl” and not go out of your mind?

ALSO READ: Prison journalism: While my friends graduated high school, I sat behind bars

At my wit’s end, I gyrated in the center of my cell, looking around hopelessly, until I spotted a 3 1/2-inch seg pen. A seg pen is clear and very flexible. If you bear down too hard, it folds, making it impossible to use as a weapon. The last occupant of my cell left one protruding from the air vent. 

Like a key, that pen opened doors, and my mind escaped.

I slapped the pen and a coffee-stained sheet of paper onto the tiny steel desk bolted to the cell’s wall, and the first line I wrote was this: “Am I mad? Of course, that’s why you’re reading this.” After that I felt serene. I blocked out Raekwon’s boastful howling that his hood had the most killers. The sounds of a man kicking his door while shrieking that a rat under his bed had eaten his lunch tray lulled to a whisper.


Over the years, writing has taken me away from the wild monotony of this steel and concrete purgatory, and given me mental peace. Physically, I still live in chaos, side by side with prisoners who remain mired in the conduct that put them here in the first place. 

I chose writing because it was the one avenue I hadn’t exercised before. I had nowhere else to turn, and I believe my destiny from the moment I snatched that seg pen out of that vent was to be a writer. It has not been easy cultivating the requisite skills. Turning something I hated into something I love has been a laborious task. I gave up more than once; but in the end I stuck with it, transforming a weakness into an attribute.

ALSO READ: Prison journalism: She was in constant pain. They told her it was normal.

Luckily, I have an imagination that allows me to soar away from this penal world on a pen. I cherish waking up at dawn in my cell and grabbing a pen and pad to begin the next story brewing in my head.

What I enjoy most about writing is the exhilarating aspect of creating and the sense of fulfillment it brings. I escape the rattling bars, shouting fiends and gang violence each time I pick up a pen and develop a character, whether it’s a detective in an ill-fitting, tasteless suit with a petulant attitude and a receding hairline, a sexy food critic with an appetite for deadly vengeance, or a journalist with a suffocating deadline.

My literary journey has thus far produced several short stories and two novels. My first book, “Silence,” about fatal vengeance and the lengths to which a person will go to avenge injustice, brought me a great deal of pride. Since then I have completed its sequel, “Tin Man,” with plans to write a third book, completing a trilogy. At the moment, though, I’m taking a break from the suspense genre to work on a historical fiction novel about slavery in the mid-19th century United States and the turmoil leading up to the Civil War. That my books will more than likely go unpublished does not matter. They are my accomplishments. 

I am a writer, and that is all I want to be.

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.

Written by Eric Jones for The Prison Journalism Project

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