Peter M. Dunne was awarded first place in Memoir 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.


Silhouette of a man facing away from the viewer in a small, empty red room

Illustration by William B Livingston III

After two years in the Bard Prison Initiative I was finally eligible for an academic transfer to Eastern CF-an ‘honor jail’ more famous for its rodent infestation (read in between the lines) than its wealth of educational programs—to earn credits toward a bachelor degree. Everybody knew the rumors: Eastern had concerts, pizza parties, talent shows, sports events, a bazaar, a movie theater; the yard had grass and trees, pet birds and kittens you could feed by hand, unicorns that grazed in the clouds and shat out sprinkles. The cells had doors and windows, radiators you could cook on in the colder months. The scenery was majestic, nothing like the infernal wastelands of Clinton and Attica. In other words, it was paradise. I couldn’t sit still. Literally. I two-stepped in my shackles from the holding pen all the way to the bus. On the ride I gave my bologna & cheese to a kid, poor sap, en route to Comstock. I even joked with some of the others-my fellows itinerants and troubadours de la calabozo. Mirth was in the air. The officers obliged our request and hit the radio, cranked the AC. I closed my eyes. The only thing missing was a hammock, a handle of cheap liquor, and a stunning goddess from an impossible to-pronounce island somewhere near the Iberian peninsula (if beggars can be choosers…).


Elated that my security classification had dropped, that I was reclassified as a Max-B prisoner, that I was leaving the netherworld to rejoin the human realm, I celebrated, like any sane individual, by spending my first week in the yard observing the population and searching for enemies in the crowd. Then, having satisfied the hounds of disquiet, me and my friend Mr. Ganja reacquainted ourselves until the fall semester began. (I must have smoked a bale’s worth of ‘dro that summer.) It was a tranquil solitude.

I was one step closer to home and felt as if my dreams had manifested into reality, that I had died and woke up in an abandoned resort-a sort of penal banya, one with officers and prisoners who excused and pleased and thanked their way through the day—but I instead came to find that Eastern was just another jail, another ‘correctional facility,’ another zoo with the same hyenas and serpents as any other in the state. The comedown was hard (much worse than detoxing from pharmaceuticals). I may have cried inside.


His name was Jules, a thirty-seven-year-old, bi-racial Long Islander. Ex-drug dealer and Hofstra dropout. Smile-creased face. Plump as a Chinese wealth deity. We met in the yard. Found out that he enjoyed the same music and movies and books, that he’d been in Eastern for five years and change, that he was the unofficial leader of the TV crew. Just a regular dude locked up like me. He kept to himself. Everyone seemed to respect him. Most importantly, he agreed that the third Matrix installment should be deleted from existence. I did not need to know much more.

We hit it off early and got into a routine. Marijuana. Cookies. Chips. Breaking Bad and Walking Dead marathons. Classic flicks. We traded cassette tapes and magazines. He’d peer review early drafts of my poetry and fiction, taking them back to his cell to mark in red pen commentary and criticism I appreciated for its honesty and wit, for how it churned in the ink long after it dried, as if from the raw id of Harold Bloom. The man missed his calling. Film, music, theater, literature. Science and politics. There was nothing he didn’t have an opinion on. I couldn’t keep up. He was brilliant. Buoyant. Hilarious. During commercials he’d roast people in the yard (many of whom became characters for future stories and novels); other prisoners joined in of course, but they never lasted more than a minute or two—perhaps for want of brain cells, a sense of humor-before cursing him out and/or walking away. With Jules, it was never malicious. Just a mental exercise to combat the swell of consumerism pouring from the tube. When the commercials ended he’d clap his hands—”Okay, we’re back!”—then face forward, somehow fully engaged in an alternate world with one foot in reality. We called ourselves the Antisocial Social Club, an esteemed institution with a daily fee of dirt weed and junk food; for uniforms, no blazers and ascots, just thick skins and beard stubble.


Summer came and left. The sun went to bed earlier and earlier. The once-verdant mountainside turned yellow, then orange and red, like a tidal wave of fire threatening to swallow the jail. Trump hijacked the media. Police shootings increased. Prisoners started dropping from fentanyl and synthetic marijuana. Albany terminated Max-B status and most reentry programs, hence eliminating any incentive for good behavior. The population changed daily. Then the fall semester began. Fun time was over. Again, I found myself surrounded by psycho pseudointellectuals and overeducated nine-to-fivers from gated communities. Elitist cons and Ivy League rejects. A diverse medley of nincompoops.

Around this time I was having a bit of trouble getting published (translation: I wasn’t). I’d spent most of my savings and was broke. My rejection letter collection had grown vast enough to serve as wallpaper. Nobody wanted to publish the doggerel of a convicted felon. Sympathetic peers paid me for love letters and poems to their significant others, but that was on as on holidays and special occasions. Villanelles and sonnets were not in high demand. Shocker. I tried to get an asbestos or painting position, but the jail wouldn’t let me work because I was in a college program earning a $50,000 a year education for ‘free.’ (Tuition costs were paid for with freedom.) Brass didn’t want to see us thrive. They’d send officers to our cells, searching for contraband or locking us up on the slightest pretext. Hustling was out of the question. One false move and they’d throw me in the box. I’d worked too hard to lose everything over something stupid like drug possession, so I sold cigarette and coffee ‘set-ups (three rollies, a spoon of Maxwell) in the yard to save money on stamps and hygiene products.

Halfway through the semester my commissary receipts began resembling Post-Its. I was surviving on state food. Oatmeal. Ramen noodles. Peanut butter and jelly. Stuff in boxes and cans and pouches. Stuff that falls off the shelves of bomb shelters during earthquakes. So, at the end of every month, to break up the monotony (though I really couldn’t afford palatal variety), I’d treat myself to a hot meal with one of my neighbors—simple things like barbecued mackerel, rice, and beans, or three-cheese ziti and sausages-feeling as if I were at a Momofuku or something. Sleep came easy on those nights, my dreams located in dim-lit dining halls or neon boulevards lined with All-You-Can-Eat signs. I’d often wake up in a pool of saliva, looking around in a daze.

Jules knew that I was struggling to feed myself and send out manuscripts, that I’d was eventually give up on one or the other-probably food—so he bought me a ‘survival kit,’ the prison equivalent of a doomsday prepper’s ‘Bug Out Bag,’ and refused any attempt to pay him back with a shrug of his massive shoulders. “You can pay me back when you’re rich and famous,” he’d say, in earnest. “Just keep doing what you’re doing.” The first few times he helped me I enacted the whole ‘l-appreciate-but-don’t-need-anyone’s-sympathy routine. (We have a lot of stories in here about the consequences of unpaid debts—e.g., the infamous “$100 candy bar’: i.e., when someone accidently throws a candy bar in your cell, waits for you to eat it, then comes to you for “favors.’) My gut said okay. My mind told me no. It was too good to be true. I’d never met anyone who helped me without expecting something in return. There was always a catch, even for those who refused material recompense. (They wanted to brag about their good deeds!) I didn’t want help. Help came with pity. And pity was for weaklings. (The only difference between help and hell, as they say, is a letter.)

But Jules didn’t pity me. “I’m just sponsoring an aspiring artist,” he’d tell me in the yard, “with the added satisfaction of knowing I’m supporting a future legend.” The Max Brod to my Kafka, he was a compassionate being, a sensitive man who lived in the moment and didn’t care what others thought of him—a mythical creature. With him, there were no strings attached, no invisible filaments in an intricate web of deception. Patiently, he’d listen as I dissembled, nodding along, while munching on a honeybun or a nutty buddy, before dropping a slew of ‘foodstuff in my net bag.

Thanks, J, you’re a good dude.”


Fist bump. Back to the block.

Come winter our acquaintance developed into a friendship, which, in this environment, is rare, perhaps even more so than in the free world. We froze our asses off on the bleachers every night, talking about our lives-pre- and post-incarceration: I discovered that his father ran off before he was born, that, from third to fifth grade, he’d been molested by his older brother’s friend, that he’d won a national spelling bee in middle school, that he’d sold Valium and Percocet to pay for his college books, that he’d dropped out of school and sold heroin to pay for his mother’s multiple sclerosis treatments and medication. (The noblest thing I’d ever done was buy a homeless man a 40 oz.) I stared at him in awe, incensed to live in a world that buried alive a peach-fuzzed nineteen-year-old for drug trafficking-for trying to extend his mother’s life or, at least, offer her a dignified end (one that didn’t include adult diapers and a wheelchair).

They gave him fifty years.

They gave me eighteen.

What did I have to complain about? He was most likely going home to receive social security (if it still existed by that time). Unlike him, however, I had a chance, he told me, to go home a young man—a youngish man—to live a responsible and engaging life of gratitude and purpose, to meet a good woman and pursue a writing career, to see my eighteen years as a gift from the universe. I smiled (something I hadn’t done in a long time). “You understand,” he asked, as if his speech were peppered with an endangered Inuit dialect. I stared at the TV, transfixed.


A bespectacled owl was peddling allergy medicine.

“Yooo. Hola. Hao ma. Kihala.”

“Xylor’ … sounds like the name of an alien god.”

“Earth to space cadet—are you there? Halloo…”

I turned around. “What’d you say?”

Clap. “Okay, we’re back!”


As winter passed into spring, as the snow melted and the air grew warm, as the tulips bloomed and the sparrows sang their ode to summer, I discovered that Jules was gay.

It was a quiet Saturday morning. Cold bran flakes and hospital waffles. Dark, sugarless coffee. My eyelids fought against gravity, recovering from a long night with a Krasznahorkai novel. I swirled a pinkie around the inside of my ear, staring at it a second too long, buying time to process what I’d been told by the guy sitting across from me. “He’s a mook,” the guy repeated, leaning in and exuding the aura of an expert witness. “I was in two other spots with him. I’m telling you—he’s a flame—a butt pirate … an abomination of nature.” He paused mid-act and cocked his head at an obnoxious angle. “You really didn’t know?”

Others at the table laughed.

I wanted to smack the smug off his face, but I instead glared at him. Speechless. My hand pale from clenching my spoon. The guy was making a scene. I could feel a hundred eyes penetrating my state greens—my skin, my meat, my bones. Jules was at the far end of the mess hall, seemingly avoiding eye contact with our table. Why wasn’t he running across the room to pounce on this guy, to fight and preserve his dignity as a man? It was obvious: he was guilty. Ashamed. Cursing him under my breath, I watched as his company filed into the hallway, then finished my breakfast in silence.


“I didn’t realize I was required to tell you,” Jules said at the movies that afternoon, refusing to face me. His overly formal tone irked me; it was a weird defense mechanism that, I felt, made an already awkward situation worse. Coming attractions played onscreen. Dramatic music. Cars exploding without cause. Overwrought tragedy and mayhem. Popular actors spewing corny one-liners or profanities as a cheap substitute for wit. Trailers tailored to specific demographics. First week sales, nothing more. “You’re not,” I said before quickly adding “but … you are.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

I didn’t either. And my conscience told me I had no right to question him or to feel ‘betrayed,’ that, prison politics aside, it was his business. (Me and my conscience don’t always agree, though. Our relationship is a tenuous one; it makes suggestions, which I usually ignore, then kicks my ass when we’re alone. Pride and peer pressure, as they say, are the Molotov cocktails of the emotions … and I am a pathological bridge-burner.) “Come on, Jules: prison etiquette 101. Don’t act stupid, bro!”

“I’m not acting stupid.”

“You are.”

“You’re succumbing to peer pressure … projecting your insecurities.”

“Whatever, Jung. You put me in a shitty position—”

“Freud, not Jung,” he said, snickering. “And the second thing you said requires context because it sounds like you’re implying that I raped you or something.” I opened my mouth and he cut me off. “Sorry to break your heart, honey, but you’re not my type…. Don’t flatter yourself.” We argued throughout the coming attractions. Our voices rose in tandem with the speakers and stabilized in the dissonance surrounding us. (“Why are you pretending to be a homophobe?” “Why are you pretending to be straight?”) I said things I didn’t mean. I called him a snake, a creep. He called me a traitor, a coward. My words were redundant and heartless. His were incisive yet benign. Mine. Left. His. Right.

Guys were spying on our conversation, watching our every move, so I—sure they’d relay to others what transpired between us—made a movie of my own and explicitly stated, indignant gesticulations included, that I wanted nothing to do with him in the future. Nothing. He was untrustworthy and selfish and his actions could’ve ruined my reputation or worse created a situation (accusations of homosexuality). I didn’t want to end up in the box, but if someone disrespected me, then I’d be forced to do something crazy and lose school. I didn’t need any “extra drama in my life.’ If he had ‘my best interest at heart’ he would’ve told me, he would’ve “put me on point.’ Plus, I deserved ‘the right of choice,’ didn’t I? I deserved to know the truth about others before deciding whether or not to include them in my circle. Jules finally turned to face me, incredulous but unmoved: “Since when do you care what others think?”

As the real movie started, I left to find a seat closer to the front, to get a better view (at least that’s what I told myself); in reality, though, I was embarrassed, scared of what other prisoners would think—or say!—if they saw me sitting next to a gay dude in the auditorium, which of course made no sense, considering that one of my best friends in the town was gay. I can’t recall anything that happened, who the actors were, or even the name of the movie (Michael Bay’s Non-Flammable Things Catch Fire and Explode For No Damn Reason?). I was roiling in my skull, mentally scrutinizing past interactions with the mook.? How oblivious I’d been—now I was the laughing stock of the jail! How many times had we fist bumped or, while roaring with laughter, smacked each other on the shoulder? and his many months of sponsorship?’ his winter ‘confessions?’ All of them were ruses to lower my guard—the combined effect of which formed a new take on the $100 candy bar: the $1,000 candy bar — and, like an idiot, I’d fallen for them.

Ironically, a non-writer had disarmed me with words. Jules was good. Really good. Since I’d pulled his card, though, it was only a matter of time before he came to collect.’ I ran through every possible scenario, imagining what he’d say or do and what I’d say or do in response, then, assuming the worst, approached him in the yard that night. “I’m going to need some time, maybe two or three months to pay you back,” I said, loud enough for the other bench potatoes to hear, “but you do have my word that I’ll pay you back…. If that’s a problem, then we’ll have to handle it, right here and right now, because I’m not sitting on ceremony.”

Jules stood up. I assumed a fighting stance.

“I don’t want your goddamn money.”

“It’s not an option.”


It took me three and a half months to settle the debt and quash any rumors floating around the facility, like nerve gas, so I felt relieved when it was over-eager to regain whatever weight I’d lost in the interim, to view the incident as a valuable life lesson, another example of tough love from the universe, and to move on (with the added benefit of experience). After that Jules and I would see each other in the hallway and avert our eyes, as if recoiling from the sun.

I avoided the yard. I spent most of my time in the school building, writing poetry and fiction, submitting elegant gibberish and expanding my rejection letter collection. (A few more and I’d have enough to make a life-sized papier-mâché model of Lady Liberty!) Then, miraculously, a couple acceptance letters fluttered down from the sky. I won my first award. My work was staged at a major event and even anthologized. Teary-eyed and beaming, I paced around my cell like a maharaj in spiritual ecstasy. I was afraid to sleep that night, for fear that I was dreaming, that reality had somehow altered and sleeping was tantamount to waking. This was a dream I never wanted to end. An officer, if I recall correctly, shined his light in my face and asked if I was okay, if I needed “to speak to mental health,” then, receiving no response, just a happy sigh, walked away shaking his head. But, then again, I may have imagined the encounter. I really don’t know.

After four years of editorial shoulder-pats, I’d finally gained some recognition. Hard work and persistence were paying off. Literally. I was getting paid for my writing. I was eating again. I was on YouTube. I’d achieved quasi-fame, a storage space in the literary pantheon. Insiders acknowledged my existence! One day, perhaps soon, I’d get a room of my own, a golden star on the door with my name etched in it: Homer, Petrarch, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens. Dunne. My epitaph: Prison walls weren’t high enough to contain his vision. (My writing career began in Green Haven CF, in 2014. My schemes eclipsed my skills. Naturally, I struggled. Editor’s ignored me. But I refused to give up. I kept writing. I wore out a cassette tape of the 8-Mile soundtrack by replaying, at least ten times a day, “Lose Yourself.” Dream big and give it everything you’ve got: You can do anything you put your mind to. I took that message to heart and immersed myself in the process. I studied, practiced, and refined my craft until form letters started coming with personal notes of encouragement, until…) In my wildest fantasies, twenty-second century college students, in twenty-first century literature classes, drooled over W.W. Norton Critical Editions of my work (or used them as fancy coasters).

Fame, however, wasn’t my sole motivation. I certainly saw value in connecting with others, especially across time and space, but I really wanted to learn about myself, to study the configurations of my heart for echoes of universal knowledge. In other words, I didn’t want to go back to jail. I wanted to get out and stay out, to live the life of a writer.

It’s that simple.


After the honeymoon phase waxed and waned, after exhausting the limits of self-love, I realized I had no one to celebrate my newfound success with. No one. I’d found a new addiction and wanted to share it with my peers, assuming they, my fellow lit-majors, would be equally addicted’ — or at least motivated enough to help start a writing workshop-but they weren’t. At all. Instead, they stared at me with narrowed eyes, offering either effusive praise or monosyllabic grunts, which, in Prisonese, translated to “This asshole thinks he’s a real writer,” thus affirming much of what I already knew and feared about the human condition e.g., the urge to restrain dreams rather than free them—so I broke out and moved on, searching for other sources of support. Other networks. But there weren’t any. (My professors were better pretenders, of course, but they too were wholly unimpressed: their agenda wasn’t ambitious enough to include artists, or anyone ungroomable as ‘urban social workers,’ yet I was nonetheless grateful for their time, their dedication to teaching and their love of learning.)

In sum, the path I’d chosen was a fulfilling but lonely one. On my off-days I’d sit on my bed and stare out the window for hours, drowning out the soundtrack of the prison yard, watching white clouds morph into billowing bales of night, while psychically reconfiguring my future, or what amounts to most as ‘fate,’ by visualizing myself on the other side of the wall (a technique Jules had taught me the previous summer)—successful, content, and free.


In late July, maybe early August, on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, I noticed Jules’s absence in the auditorium during a screening of Doctor Strange. (He never missed a movie.) I thought little of it, though, as I handed the guy behind me an envelope, for a chip refill, and turned around in time to see Tilda Swinton’s character transforming Manhattan into a magical Rubik’s Cube. Once privy to the fervent man-cave of Jules’s Marvel obsession, a shared neurosis, perhaps a by-product of TV-parenting, I figured his absence due to circumstances out of his control—like a trip to the SHU (special housing unit) or an unexpected visit-rather than an irrational decision to ditch a cinematic masterpiece, especially one of such epic proportions. Then, after the movie ended and we returned to our cells, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen him waddling through the hallway for, at least, a week or two.

Why hadn’t I noticed earlier?

Lost in my thoughts, I went to the messhall, came back, and read in my cell until program time. The same paragraph over and over. I couldn’t concentrate, attributing my fogginess to ‘overdrive ?—too much caffeine and no sleep, stress combined with depression—a daily, though typical, dose of carceral ennui. That evening, in the general library, one of the guys from the Antisocial Social Club informed me of Jules’s passing. “He’s gone, man…” He’d went on a medical trip for thyroid surgery and returned with a staph infection, the worst possible kind MRSA. They emptied his cell, sent him to the clinic. Quarantined him in a glass tank with nothing in it but a mattress, a shower, a bible. No human contact (unless prison doctors count). Five days of antibiotics only made things worse: the infection spread to every part of his body and slowly devoured him from the inside out, like a million maggots bursting from a deer on the highway. “I called his mom two nights ago, and it, um, it was bad. Real bad. She screamed. She dropped the phone, I think. I didn’t know what else to do, so I, um, you know, hung up. There was nothing more to say, right?”

It was shocking but, considering the environment, unsurprising. I closed my book and nodded solemnly, unable to look him in the eye, then went to my cell to bury myself under the covers and accept the dark’s embrace. My face stiffened. My throat stung. My joints ached. I couldn’t sleep. Memories flitted across my eyelids. Assuming he’d be around forever, I’d foolishly squandered a million opportunities to apologize and regain the respect of my friend (one of the few I’ve ever known). He’d deserved better. Jules was the only person to encourage my writing—the only to remember my birthday; for my twenty-ninth, a chilly, miserable night in December, he surprised me, although I’d forgotten his, with a clothbound edition of Great Expectations, as if in anticipation of my betrayal, and I stared at it, then at him, nodding in gratitude, both of us touched by the other’s speechlessness as snow danced across the yard in iridescent swirls. In return, I’d abandoned him for being gay.



I struggled to accept the undeniable reality, the finality, of his departure, to picture him– his form, his eyes, his smile—and found that the details had blurred and faded from my memory, like the afterimage of a rainbow. Why did fate give him fifty years and me eighteen? why take him so early? why him rather than me? Life. Death. Time. Space. It didn’t make sense-a cosmic joke without a punchline. His gift sat on my locker, wrapped in plastic. I removed the Polaroid inside and read the note he’d written:

Happy B-day, little bro! You’re a superstar! – Love, Jules.

I imagined how our last conversation should’ve gone:

“What’s up, J. Got a minute?”” Mute button. “Yeah.”

“I need to apologize for what I said … and stuff. I had no right to—”

“You don’t owe me an apology, bro.”

“But I do. I really do,” I said, ignoring everybody else. “Listen to me, Jules, I was wrong for how I acted. Dead wrong. I was being a coward. I should’ve stuck up for you, cursed that creep out. You deserved—deserve—better than that and I’m sorry. You’re a good guy, a stand-up dude. I don’t care what others think or say.” Jules sat up and offered a handshake. I disregarded it, choosing to hug him instead. Shock registered in his arms. Worried for the sake of my name he shifted his shoulder, transitioned our hug into a manly dap, and pulled away. “People are watching,” he muttered, concern flashing in his eyes. I shrugged. I set my things down on the bleachers and sat down beside him. My big brother. “What’re we watching?”

I taped Jules’s photo inside the book, then faced the wall and cried.

It was the first time I’d wept for someone other than myself.


A lot has changed since Jules’s passing. The population flipped. Again. A rougher, younger crowd arrived and trampled what remained of the peace. Security is stricter. The original members of the Antisocial Social Club are gone––shipped off to other jails or to the SHU. I’m still in school, of course—writing, tutoring, dreaming about the future: career, relationships, independence. Freedom. When I catch myself drifting too far, though, I return to my body and focus on the air entering and leaving my lungs—the present moment—practicing gratitude for good health, inspiration, and the kindness of strangers.

Recently, I’ve befriended a guy in the college program. Another ‘lit guy.’ A lonely bookworm, like myself, with writerly ambitions. A good kid who took a bad detour and wound up in the hoosegow. His name is Sam. We have similar tastes in literature, often trading books and discussing them in the yard. Poetry, short fiction, novels. Sometimes we debate their merits, or lack thereof, in heated arguments, but it’s always respectful.

In the school building, a few days into our tutoring sessions, he admitted that he was bisexual (which of course I figured, having witnessed his failed attempts at acquiring a phone in the yard). He told me about his case, how he was imprisoned, at eighteen, for sleeping with a sixteen-year-old girl, who-seven years later—was now his fiancé. He’d proposed to her on a visit. She said yes (though they were legally ineligible for a marriage certificate and would have to wait until after his release). In public, prisoners ostracized him; yet, in private, he told me, many of them accosted him for sexual favors, especially those who’d slandered him behind his back. “I understand if you don’t want to deal with me,” he said, before tentatively adding, “I’ve heard the rumors … the ‘baby rapist stuff.” I shook my head, assuring him that the sexual preferences of others didn’t affect me, that I’d had a gay friend prior to and during my incarceration, that I wasn’t an instrument of prison politics, that I refused to conform or perpetuate its homophobic, machismo culture, that I dealt with everyone on an individual basis. I didn’t respect the prison hierarchy. It was stupid. No one had a right to judge him. Sam nodded, relieved. “You’re okay in my book,” I said with a shrug, while gazing out the window and thinking of Jules drifting along the cloudscape, happy—somewhere deep in the oceanic sky, that eternal world emptied of all space & time, that which lies beyond the reaches of our loftiest dreams-free, grazing with his fellow unicorns.

Further Reading

  • From the Prison Writing archives: “Applause” by Hal Cobb