Joseph Grosso was awarded 2nd Place in Nonfiction Essay in the 2022 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.

Nietzsche proclaimed that “God is dead, and WE have killed him,” but Nietzsche has clearly never been locked up. While belief in God may be dwindling in the U.S. and other first world countries, God is very much alive in the U.S. Prison system. 

In fact, there is so much of it in prison that one might wonder why all the prisoners haven’t miraculously transcended out of the prison walls and into a new paradise; all being forgiven and redeemed. While there are a few heathens, heretics, and atheists sprinkled about the population (present author included), I don’t think this is the reason for any lack of transcendence. 

According to one inmate, whom I unfortunately came to know all too well, the reason is that often prisoners do not completely give themselves over to God. I’ll never forget that one time when Stabby McGee came and sat next to me at chow. I don;t think I ever knew his real name, but we all called him Stabby McGee because, well, apparently, he liked stabbing people, a lot. I was trying my best to choke down the rabbit feed they give us here (Modified Vegetable Protein Pellets) when Stabby took a seat next to me. 

“Look at these vultures, man”. He said, looking out at the crowd of inmates

I looked up from my tray of slop with eyebrows raised, not sure if he was talking to me. 

“Ya know what I’m sayin?” His eyes slid from the crowd to me. Shit. He is still talking to me. 

“Uhh, not really.” I sighed. 

“These guys here,” he said, “They’re not real men. They’re vultures. Ya know what I mean?” 

“I really don’t.” 

“ You got all these guys in here claiming to be in the faith, but all they do is hover around their little books in their little study groups, picking it apart like vultures at a piece of meat. But it takes a real man to give himself completely over to God. None of these guys are men.

Stabby was always spewing ridiculous superior views like this. HE must not have known I was an atheist, though if he thought I was a believer I still wouldn’t be a “man” as far as his standards go, so why he was complaining to me I’ll never know. I don’t try to understand his logic. 

I was especially not in the mood for his nonsense on this particular day, but I decided to give him five minutes because his outrageous claims were usually a future source of amusement. 

“So, who is a real man then?” I asked. 


He was clearly not prepared for this question and had to think about it. 

“Uh, well, Jesus.” he finally answered. “And, uh, probably Moses.” 

“Oh, for sure,” I said dryly, “but one can hardly expect…” 

“And me!” he interrupted.

I’m so glad I gave him my five minutes. I knew it would be worth it. 

“So, you put yourself on the same level as Jesus and Moses?” 

“Well,” he stammered, “I mean, they are better men than me, but like, yeah. Yeah I do put myself on that level.” 

His confidence was gaining. 

“I have a lot of the same qualities as them. And I have given myself completely over to God.” 

“There does seem to be something special about you.” I said as innocently as possible. Stabby wasn’t the sharpest knife (pun definitely intended), but he might detect sarcasm and I certainly didn’t want to test the truth behind his nickname. 

“I don’t know you all that well,” I said, “but you do seem to embrace some of the same qualities as Jesus. Especially humility.” 

“Exactly!” he agreed. 

Stabby went on for another four minutes, ranting how everyone in prison just half-assed it and nobody gave themselves completely over to God, before I finally had to shut it down and walk away. Part of me wanted him to explain exactly what he meant by “completely giving oneself over to God” but five minutes with Stabby is more than enough for one day. 

This sort of talk became a regular occurrence and he was particularly harsh with his criticism of my cellmate Miguel. He would always get into some doctrinal debate with him and afterward pull me aside to complain about a hypocrite he was. I mean, Stabby wasn’t necessarily wrong in his assessment of Miguel, but it was sort of like if Hitler had complained that Stalin didn’t respect human rights. 

Miguel annoyed me even more than Stabby. He was a self-declared devious Christain who attended church weekly, took part in a regular bible study, and did his own independent studies in the cell. He liked to preach and vehemently tried to get me to see the error of my ways and accept Jesus. I always dismissed him with a casual wave of my hand which annoyed him greatly and impassioned him to preach ever more fervently, albeit with increased anxiety. Some days I’d perturb him so much with my wave-offs that he would turn a deep red shade of red and start to shake. I’m not ashamed to admit I took some pleasure in his agitation and used to make a game with myself to see how dismissively and casually I could make my waves.

On one particular night, which was pretty much like every other night in prison, while I was at the desk probably reading something unchristian (probably Dawkins) and probably listening to something unchristian (probably Manson), Miguel was on his top bunk doing his studies with a pencil in one hand, bible in the other, and his TV blaring like usual. However, at one point when I turned to ask him something I noticed that instead of being in a deep spiritual reflection he was ogling the sexy reporter on the TV with his left hand shoved down his short, grasping his other pencil, if you catch my drift, all while still holding the bible in his right hand. 

Now I’m no bible scholar, but does it say somewhere in the good book that “Thou shalt not defile thyself, at least not whilst thy sacred scriptures in thy other hand”? I mean, if it doesn’t, it certainly ought to. 

My first reaction to this seemingly contradictory act was, naturally, one of disgust. Though not because he offended me in some sacrilegious sense, but because using yourself like a cocktail shaker less than fifteen inches from my head is just not cool. Although there was a bit of humor in the irony in it all, and I assume the only thing that kept me from dragging him off his bunk, pummeling him into a compact ball, and flushing him down the toilet straight to hell was the ludicrous comedy behind the whole thing. 

Miguel’s contradictory nature represents a lot of the faithful I’ve encountered in prison, but he does not represent everyone. There are some genuinely devout believers. At this point I felt it necessary to announce a disclaimer that my observations should not be confused with judgments. Who am I to judge the measure of someone’s righteousness, even if they do go at themselves like a jackhammer while reading the Gospels? Nobody is perfect. And I’m just a wicked heathen away. 

In my part of the country, Islam is by far the dominant religioon among the Black prison population, while Christanity reigns supreme with the Latino and White inmates. There is a small Jewish presence, but most of them readily admit that they only officially declared for Judaism so they can get special meals and snacks of Matzo crackers during Passover. Despite the religious and doctrinal differences, there is one thing I’ve observed that all jailed believers have in common. Whether one is Muslim, Christain, Jewish; or whether one is dedicated to their narrow parth or uses his body like an amusement aprt during a bible session, the universal theme is this: hope. 

Hope comes in many different flavors among the religious and each one is identified by its specific end goal. For some, hope of a heavenly paradise is the most they can afford. I’ve found that the guys who are serving life sentences and who have exhausted their appeals tend to focus their hope on another world, and their prayers and supplications are aimed thus. Below that, you have those who are serving long sentences, but are amid appealing or involved in some other legal process. In this case, the main hope is that they may see the outside of this world someday. As the sentences get lower the hopes vary accordingly. My own observations have been that religious belief is just as prevalent among lower sentenced inmates as higher ones, though I heard someone once say that those with lower sentences don’t need God as much because they know they will see the light of day at some point. 

Someone even once accused me of being an atheist only because I had a lower sentence. Heck, for all I know that person may be right. I don’t know if my beliefs are robust enough to withstand the hard strike of a life sentence. 

About two years into my sentence, I met a man who not only changed my way of thinking about God in prison, but God in general. And although he didn’t convert me, he greatly impressed me with his wisdom and gave me many nuggets of pure gold, especially with his take on hope, which forced me to reflect on my own system of values. His name was Zed. 

Zed was a forty-five-year-old Black man who came to prison at eighteen for a double murder. He came in without any formal education, but eventually got his GED, then an associates degree, then a bachelors, and at the time of my conversations with him he was in the process of getting his masters. Besides being educated he possessed natural intelligence and common sense, and was especially insightful when it came to people, their character and their motivations. He was also one of the most devious Muslims I’ve ever met. 

I only had the pleasure of being Zed’s cellmate for a short time, but in that time, I got to know him well. I was, of course. A little apprehensive about moving in with such a strict and disciplined Muslim, as I feared I might offend him with my rock n’ roll and my infidel literature, but I soon realized these worries were unfounded. Zed was one of the best cellmates I’ve had and not just because he was respectful, down to earth, humble, and generous; but also because my conversations with him were fruitful and enlightening.

You should know that there is a definite racial divide in prison and DOC even recognizes this by housing Blacks with Blacks, whites with whites, and Latinos with Latinos. Since this can’t always be accommodated, you occasionally end up in a situation like Zed and myself did. 

On the surface it wouldn’t have seemed like Zed, and I had I had much in common’: he being a poor black man and devout Muslim from the inner-city serving a life bid, and me a white guy from suburbia, serving a relatively low sentence, who is both a drug addict and an athiest, but we both had accommodating dispositions and this allowed a relationship of mutual regard to develop. 

The thing that struck me most about Zed, however, was something other than the admirable traits I listed above. It was the unique flavor of hope he embraced which had the most profound effect on me. In my conversations with Zed, he told me that as a devious Muslim he did of course have a heavenly home. He was also engaged in legal work which gave him the possible hope of release someday. Although neither of these things, he admitted, were for him “the hope of highest”.  A term he coined and repeated often. 

Zed defined his “hope of the highest order” as the hope that he can live his best life tomorrow and the rest of his life. He never said he hoped to live the best life but his best life. “The implies a universal standard in which people and society gauge what is best, he had told me, while “his was completely personal and unique to what was best for his tastes, abilities, and situation. And the reality of his situation was, to be sure, that he was in prison, and he was probably never leaving. 

I wasn’t sure I understood exactly what he meant at first and I asked him to expound.


“When people hear me say that my highest hope is to live my best life tomorrow and onward” he said, “they often think I’m essentially re-phrasing the old adage ‘when life gives you lemons…’ Or ‘make the best you can of a bad situation’, but it is so much more than that. It’s not just about living with as much comfort and as little pain as possible given my limited situation. It’s about self-overcoming. It’s about fulfilling potential, breaking down barriers you thought you had, or realizing that some barriers can’t be broken and instead of succumbing to them, incorporating them into your strategy for becoming your best self in order to live your best life.


“And the hope aspect of it all,” he went on, “is that I continue to strive towards this improvement and overcoming tomorrow and these next day. It’s not always easy to do. It involved a lot of pain and someday I just want to give up the work. Other days I want to hang it up all together. And so my hope is that in ten years from now I’ll strive and push and not become indifferent to my life.” 


This was amazing to me. A man who spent twenty-seven years in prison, and likely to spend the remainder of his life here, was telling me he didn’t put his highest hope in freedom or even in a heavenly freedom, but instead had his biggest hope in himself, in this life, as it is. 

I told Zed that this was one of the most noble ideas I’ve ever heard. Though I had to admit that I was surprised to hear it coming from such a strict, devout, God-fearing person. I would think someone who has dedicated their life to God would forsake this life in a sense and put all their eggs in the basket of heavenly hope. 

“You gotta remember,” Zed was completely relaxed with a cool smirk as he spoke, “I’m from the hood. I was hustling day and night before coming in here. On the streets, promises don’t mean a thing. Everyone out there where I’m from knows that you never put any weight into a promise. They have no value for us and so we run our lives with that fact ingrained in us. I guess that old way of thinking has anchored in me too deep to be completely eradicated, haha!” He burst into laughter. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” he added, “I do believe in heavenly paradise. I do hope for it. It;s just, if I had a thousand eggs, I’d probably put nine hundred and ninety-nine in the basket of heavenly hope and keep one here just in case, you know?”

We both laughed and after I had a few minutes to absorb all he said I finally responded.

“I’m being bold here,” I said, “but you seem to me like a bit of a contradiction.” I’d had enough conversations with Zed at this point to know he wouldn’t take offense. He and I both shared an enjoyment for dialectical conversation. 

“I’m clearly not an expert in spiritual matters,” I continued, “but it seems to me that you haven’t given yourself completely over to God, as far as I ‘m familiar with the concept, I’m not saying all believers should be complete ascetics-especially since the idea ‘all believers should’ doesn’t compute with me being a non-believer and all- but I mean, it just seems like your hope of highest order being geared towards yourself and this life, and the fact that you would hold back even one egg is contrary to the discipline, strictness, and fidelity I’ve observed in your faith. Shouldn’t all that you do be for the glory of God and the heavenly promise?”

“You’ve got it all wrong my man,” Zed replied. “My hope to live my best life and maintain that striving to do so for the rest of my days IS FOR the glory of Allah. Your idea of giving oneself over to God completely sounds like medieval asceticism. If God wanted us to do nothing but worship him twenty-four-seven he could have just made us as pure consciousness. But he gave us arms and legs, and stomachs that need food, and made us into men and women who can love and have children. He gave us music and writing and the ability to learn about our environment and ourselves. None of that is necessary to worship him. He could have gotten the job done without giving us physical bodies and a physical world if pure worship was his only desire from us.” 

“And so,” he continued, “I believe he gave us all these extra faculties because he wants us to be our best self and live our best lives. Not the best compared to some common standard or bar, but our best relative to ourselves. Some people were blessed with better gifts and talents. Some are more intelligent, more artistic, better educators, but it doesn’t matter. To be our best self within our own framework is to honor God in the best way.” 

Then Zed asked me if I had kids. I told him no. 

“Well,” he said, “if you did, wouldn’t you want him or her to be the best him or her they could be? Wouldn’t you take pride in their efforts and achievements? Especially if they attributed their success to you, their father, and to your teaching?” 

“Of course, I would.” 

“And if you created something, a machine, or a piece of art, wouldn’t you want it to work with the highest degree of functionality or beauty possible? Would it do you the highest honor if it was only mediocre?” 

“Of course not.” 

“I believe you see my point.” He spoke. “We can’t ever reach perfection, not in this world at least, but trying to be my best self and live my best life whether I’m free or in prison, is an ongoing process toward perfection that won’t end until I’m dead. It might seem silly to strive toward a goal in which you know you can never attain, and indeed it has taken me years and lots of meditation to reconcile the process with the unreachable end goal into a motivation. The very fact you can never reach perfection might discourage some from trying, but for me it is that very fact which makes the process infinite in a sense and without limitations. It’s maintaining  that motivation day after day, year after year that worries me. My hope of highest order is that I will always be able to maintain it.” 

“I received the worst possible sentence.” Zed continued. “I’m doing life. Then I realized at one point that if I have to do life here then I’m going to do life while I’m in here. See what I’m saying? And I would have never come to any of this if I didn’t give myself over to God completely. All I do is for his glory.” 

Zed ended here and excused himself because it was approaching one of his daily prayer times. As I watched him pull out his prayer rug and wash his face, I thought to myself, “Now THIS is a man” The same words Napoleon spoke on meeting the great poet Goethe for the first time. And indeed, Zed’s words were like poetry to me. I was thinking that this is a man who has accepted an awful fate but hasn’t despaired. This is a man who is not driven to seek as much comfort and as little suffering as possible, like most of us, but instead is dedicated to self-overcoming despite the suffering that it causes-the suffering that is almost necessary. 

I thought of Miguel and his shaky, red face and of Stabby and his outrageous exclamations and I had to laugh. Before my conversations with Zed, I would have ignorantly lumped them in the same category-as believers. But the divide between them and Zed is greater than the divide between Zed and me. 

A lot of what Zed said was eerily similar to what the existentialists had to say and who were notoriously atheistic, but Zed had never read any of that stuff. He came to these ideas independently and through God, not contrary to god. 

I eventually transferred facilities and never saw Zed again and probably never will. But my own process of self-overcoming began because of those conversations with him, and I have striven to develop it continually despite the pain involved throughout. I’m still a firm non-believer, however, and consider myself a rationalist through and through. I would put all my eggs in the basket of modern science and to me physics and cosmology and the holiest of the holies. 

And Nietzsche was right when he said, “God is dead.” The world, at least in the west, is in the lowest religious state it’s ever been, and church attendance is at an all-time low. I used to think this was a good thing because it would put humanity in a more realistic mindset which we would only benefit from. But what if we could do life the way Zed is doing life? What states of higher culture, progress, and peace could we attain if we adopted his concept of God and replaced, or at least supplemented, our traditional hopes with his hopes of the highest order? 

If doing this meant us humans would strive to self-overcome, strive to fulfill potential and strive to live and be the best “us” we can be, then even I would admit that the best thing we could possibly do would be to resurrect God and give ourselves over completely. And mankind would have no choice then but to look back at itself and exclaim, “Now THIS is man!”

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