C. Fausto Cabrera was awarded honorable mention in Poetry in the 2020 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

The illustration for this piece of writing was expressly created by an incarcerated artist curated by Justice Arts Coalition. This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


A tree floats above its trunk and roots, seemingly divided by a lightning strike before a stormy sky

Illustration by Conor Broderick

This is the Land of 10,000 Lakes stated on each license plate printed in the prison industry plant of Rush City, where I wake so far emerged in this sentence the 1 & 0’s of dreams are in a bars & bullshit razor wire wonk.

Out of a different cell into the same cage I see a troupe of circus clowns leaning over a spread newspaper like they might fall in. They seem mad about something new, nothing to do with what they add or subtract. This time it’s another killer cop. Last week it was a normal murder, but they weren’t mad—just looking to gossip about black on black in white space.

I thought about drowning. How akin the gasps for air seem in moments of tragedy; and how common it is for black folk to joke about not knowing how to swim.

Two decades ago I saw the same scene in the county jail, clowns crowd around an open paper; one looked at me, back down then at me again. Then he walked away in a silent scorn that unsettled my stomach. I’d already seen the section, knew it wasn’t a fraction of the whole story, and thus contemplated my rights to throw it away. Or at least tear the square around my mugshot, to save face a police report painted knowing no journalist would go fishing for me.

I learned long ago about taking the bait of free press and the dangers of falling into the sea of an open paper with its bias beaches.

Further Reading

Illustrations by Students at Parsons School of Design