For Independence Day, we are posting a poem that won second prize in the most recent writing contest sponsored by the PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Project. (To donate to this program, which brings an opportunity for freedom of expression to human beings who have so few other freedoms, click here.)

This poem is by prisoner Christian J. Weaver, whose personal statement reads:  “I am currently serving a life sentence for murder. While in jail, I became a Christian and pled guilty to my crime. My life changed drastically.” Weaver writes that while in prison he “developed a passion for social justice” and “studied the history of the U.S. prison system and found an interesting progression: from slavery to sharecropping/convict leasing to prison.” Weaver also comments on the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, adopted in 1865, which says: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States.” Weaver writes that he “also found that the 13th Amendment didn’t end slavery…Now convicts instead would be ‘slaves of the state.’ This explained the abuses listed in ‘rehabilitation,’ as well as the state’s lack of interest in a self-reformed prisoner.”

Rehabilitation

What prisoners are …

Despised. Rejected. Feared. Abhorred. Forgotten. Hated. Ridiculed. Scorned. Humiliated. Cursed. Berated. Shamed. Divided. Crushed. Shackled. Maimed.

What prisoners have …

No sky. No grass. No trees, No travel. No children. No wife. No man’s best friend. No trust. No suffrage. No income. No autonomy. No power to do good. No scent of a woman. No gurgling infant. No freedom of speech. No freedom of press. No freedom of self-expression. No dignity. No self- respect. No right to self-defense. No sympathy. No credibility. No honor. No acknowledgement of goodness. No acknowledgement of progress. No acknowledgement of remorse. No acknowledgement of existence. No image of God.

What prisoners endure …

Malnourishment. Beatings. Murder. Medical neglect. Torture. Humiliation. Forced labor. Sexual abuse. Broken families. Parentless children. Cursing. Threats. Social stigmas. Extortion. Self-hatred. Collaboration. Violence. Betrayal. Insanity. Suicide.

What I’ve achieved …

Wisdom. Sobriety. A profound respect for moral law. A deep religious faith. Self-respect. Physical discipline. Mental discipline. Intense scholarship. The writing of poetry, novels, and essays. Honesty. Empathy. Self-sacrificing love. Self-control. The ability to endure hatred without hating back. Reconciliation with family. Reconciliation with friends. An inclination toward charity. Fortitude. Joy amid despair. Peace amid violence. Stability amid madness. Hope for a future that’s fifty years away. Illumination.

What I am …

Despised. Rejected. Feared. Abhorred. Forgotten. Hated. Ridiculed. Scorned. Humiliated. Cursed. Berated. Shamed. Divided. Crushed. Shackled. Maimed.

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