Poet “Conway” Reflects on Isolation and Fellowship in Prison

Here are some more excerpts from my recent correspondence with “Conway”, a prisoner at a supermax facility in central California who’s serving 25-to-life under the state’s three-strikes law for receiving stolen goods.

Dec. 7, 2006

This young black man down the tier. He’s been ostracized by his folk, has been asking me for help in his songs he’s been writing, and a story — it’s very ghetto murder rampage story gangsters in the hood and what not but his songs have some serious merit — he sang two of them to me in the cages, I’m not the one to judge but I see the talent in his words, so I gave him my opinion and offered a direction. He said it helped him take it into another direction he hadn’t realized.

Isn’t it funny how talking with another creative person can give you a new perspective on your own creativity?

The odd thing is in here we are totally segregated and then separated by cages (dog kennels) but I get a chance to converse with characters I would never even speak to on the mainline or in society, it is such a severe microcosm of the world and we’re all out there in our boxers + shirts and state issued tennis shoes, no pretentious clothes or jewelry just personality, and everyone is in search of conversation respectfully. Oh there are the few that are forever hateful, or just broken husks of humanity, but the cops don’t allow them out too often to disrupt the congeniality of the cages if that sounds absurd, it probably would to the outside observer, but I’m starting to enjoy freezin in my boxers in the rain and meeting all these crooks 🙂

The cold thing is I’m not sure if they are aware of the monsters they are creating in these dungeons. It’s hard to watch a man you’ve conversed with and related with, all of a sudden break down, and it reminds me of a scenario, of a scene I saw on TV.

These guys were trying to let this leopard out of a cage it was in the back of a truck they apparently took it on this journey to set it loose after capture. They pulled a string from inside the cab of the truck and it opened the cage the cat leapt out and jumped into the cab with the driver and attacked him. At first you think how ungrateful this belligerent cat is trying to maul his savior. And then you got to realize that cat has probably sat behind those steel bars, or mesh seething, wishing it could lash out at this miserable person who kept it trapped, and when the time comes for its freedom its only thought is revenge, before it even thinks to run, get away from this place.

It’s kind of like that with these guys, they keep them locked in cages, constantly pestering, belittling, making these madmen, and their parole date comes they open the gate and say Go! but they are still behind the fence, so the only ones to lash out at are the unexpecting, unprepared sheep wending their way home after a day’s work in the office, factory or whatever job they use to survive. “The vicious circle” and then the cops point and say See! You need me! Perpetual perpetrators….

Any rage I told you about the “poop stain” [guy] they sprayed him out of his cell with pepper spray after he threw his feces/urine concoction on cops then gave him a tune up in the rotunda, and disappeared. Now they got a guy who kicks his door or did kick his door till he got the “tension cage”. He’s quiet now (somewhat) — he keeps trying to talk to us in the cages they took his shoes so he’s barefoot on the cold concrete. I know he’s suffering but man he tortured us for weeks & weeks before they extracted him I still despise him for putting me throughthat but he tries to catch my eye and it seems he’s pleading with his eyes for someone anyone to talk to him. I know I’m probably out of line to ignore him but we all have decided he’s on the shine for a while — I know I’m probably going to have to be the one to break it down and give him some conversation but not yet, I guess I’m not as compassionate as I’d like to be….

OK now as for you sending books yes please it would be greatly appreciated they allow me to receive 5 books per month….The guy I traded the drawing for Anna Karenina got it from amazon.com — oh you won’t believe this but I just traded that book for Inferno by Dante Alegheri very good book. That guy I traded just ordered The Count of Monte Christo and Cyrano de Bergerac”. I can’t wait to read those when he’s done 🙂  The only thing is we have to tear the books only 50 pages at a time go under the door so we can fish them to each other with lines we spin out of boxer waist band threat so the books even though the binding is ruined then are cherished (if that makes sense at all).

Conway enclosed some poems in this letter, from which I’ve selected the ones below:


Artificial lights create shadows
   as the sun’s jealous presence beckons
lingering with dark fingers
   into the cracks of Hell.

Fire flickers and peeks for intruders
   leading even blindness to warmth
see everything must feed
   death be the need for life.

Flame needs fuel, “destruction”
   another tool of life’s construction
cast about on the silhouettes
   of our passing desire to breathe.

Whether we acknowledge complicity
   our signature still lingers
regardless acceptance
   the dying is buying all.
(No matter how big or small.)

So this flickering flame burns brightly
   as the moon turns tightly
around earth’s wrist, giving a twist
   on the sun’s revolution.

How long till tension becomes too tight
   and space reverses in flight
taking back terrific energy spent
   while we all went about our way.

Tomorrow or today it must happen
   we all become the shadow
darkness wins from the sins of living
   how long will your shadow last?



The sonic boom reverberating
in the dayroom echoed in my head
as he kicked the door.

Oh how I wanted to take off his foot
stop his complaining
one day it’s this, the next it’s that
constantly wanting more.

We all were filled with rage
as he stormed about his cage
making a scene, it was his usual routine
until the day they finally got sore.

They came for him that day
filled his cell with pepper spray
good riddance for that I thought,
I smiled as he choked and coughed
wishing him gone
I despised him to the very core.

They dragged him out limp
chained behind his back
trailing the triangle
held by a dozen green suited goons
the ones we all abhor.

They pushed him into the cage
in the dayroom on center stage
and hung the chain from the top
He was begging for them to stop
but it was too late now
This time he’d learn his lesson
His arms were lifted chained
behind his back as he complained
The sight was sorry to be sure.

He couldn’t sit he couldn’t stand
His position was bent over
it was called the tension cage
He cried within moments, I laughed
you see he wasn’t kicking anymore.

After the first hour there
I then became aware
he was sobbing, but repressed
trying to hold it in I guessed
I started to identify
with the plight he had in store.

They left him there till morning
after breakfast and I felt dread
he wasn’t even fed
or, curled up on his concrete bed
Just sagging on the chain crimp
in the dayroom sobbing softly limp
it was pitiful and mean
The worst treatment I’d ever seen
just because he kicked the stupid steel door.

Finally they came in
unchained him from the bars within
as his arms came down he cried
They walked him back to his cell bent over and tied
as he sobbed for he couldn’t stand
but they pulled his purple hand and arms
backward to be uncuffed
and stuffed them through the trayslot in the door.

We all watched and listened
till we all felt a little sickened
what a nasty trick to pull
they hurt that sorry fool
more than I could ever want
it was such a wretched stunt
I wake at night sometimes
and wonder how it could be
what if they did that to me
could I take the pain
or would they break my brain
and then one day it happened
as I looked out my window
out the back of my prison cell
I thought oh they can all go to hell
I ran as hard as I could
But before I reached my destination
I stuck out my foot in desperation
I kicked the door…

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