Category Archives: Views From The Inside

New Year’s Eve

Prison lines, prison rhymes,
There has to be better times.

Every day a grind, so hard to shine
In a 9×12 all my time.

A king with no crown,
That has a permanent frown.

Surrounded by music,
Without any sound.

The void filled with brown,
Same color as the ground.

Nothing around, hidden above ground,
Left so alone, within cells made of stone.


Travis Runnels, is a published author, and is currently working on his second novel.  He lives on Death Row.  He prepared the above poem for submission on New Year’s Eve, 2017.

Travis Runnels #999505
3872 FM 350
Livingston, TX 77351

You Have No Idea

You have no idea what it’s like to be me – to have a father who delivers empty promises, to have dreams that are so far out of reach, attainability mocks you.

You have no idea what welfare tastes like or how the lump in the throat of a proud woman feels as her child gleefully laces up his used shoes.

You don’t know what it’s like – what early morning yard sales and a three mile trek to a fucked up job can do to your psyche or what it’s like to watch your hero bested by a villainous street drug, that special something in their eyes, forever gone.

You can’t know what that’s like because you’re not me, and you have no idea what it’s like to accept that everything you’ve done good was never really good enough; no idea what it’s like to have avoided near tragedy, only to have it claim your spirit, or what it’s like to, twice, be a victim of injustice because classism was instituted just for you.

You, seriously, have no idea what it feels like to believe in a country that doesn’t believe in you, one that has deemed you hopeless and washed its hands of your filthy soul – what it’s like to watch your brother’s lifeless body hanging from a bed sheet as an alternative to the daily cruelty he has suffered – no idea what it’s like to see your loved ones perish beyond a glass partition, to have that emptiness in your chest, and stillness on your tongue – no idea, the embarrassment of having to face your children, knowing that your shortcomings have victimized them, also.

You have no idea what it’s like to be drowned in struggle, encumbered by misery, yet still keep fighting because it’s all you have left.

What a life… you have no idea.


Just Thinking…

It’s 2018, and God willing, I will be a free man in another year and a half.  I once had a Life sentence, but President Obama reduced my sentence to thirty years.  Thirty years is still too much for a man who has never even been to juvenile, much less in any trouble with the law before.  They originally gave me natural LIFE – for Conspiracy.  I’ve been in prison since June 29, 1994.  That’s a long time.

Twenty four years ago, I had four kids, my youngest a newborn son.  Now that son has a newborn of his own and a beautiful five year old daughter.  He brought her to visit me this past weekend.  She proved to me she could count all the way up to fifty before she bit into her corndog.  She hadn’t even finished if before she was asking to go to the playroom with the other kids.  When my son told her she had to finish her food first, she killed it.  I washed up her hands and mouth before she hopped down, ready to go.

That’s when my heart dropped.  She didn’t know.  She grabbed my hand and said, “Come on Pa-Pa.”  My son tried to explain that I couldn’t go, but he would.  How could that make sense to a five year old?  “No, I want Pa-Pa to go.”

Prison doesn’t just confine you to one location.  It takes away a lot more than that.  I didn’t know how to feel in that moment. I felt great that she wanted me to go, and I felt like crap because I couldn’t.  Later that night when I thought about our visit, it brought tears to my eyes.  The smallest things in life, we can’t do.

I can’t wait to be a free man, to take my grandkids to a park, to be able to go out and play.  Just thinking….


Robert Booker was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, but has spent nearly twenty-five years in federal prison.  He is the author of Push, Tony Jones, The Janitor, Tales From The Yard: Volume One, and Who Is Karma?

Robert Booker #19040039
Federal Correctional Institution
P.O. Box 1000
Milan, Michigan 48160


The broken people you see in a place like prison often spark memories from before prison, the lessons you’ve learned, and the experiences you’ve had.  I’m constantly reminded of my dad and the things he taught me.

It was through my dad that I was introduced to the first homeless person I ever knew.  Over the years I’ve known a total of three homeless people – four if you count me, which at the moment, I do.

I always thought my dad’s friend, Joe, was an old guy who worked at his office, an employee.  Turns out that Joe was a homeless veteran who lived downtown and would drop by my dad’s office for coffee and donuts.  Joe was in his 60’s.  My dad was 45, and I was about 15 or 16 at the time.

When I saw him, Joe would ask how I was doing in school, and one time my dad brought him home for dinner, unannounced.  My dad didn’t just bring him for a home cooked meal though, I think he also brought him to see the look on my step mom’s face.

The third homeless person I met was standing in front of a Super Walmart on a cold autumn day in East Texas.  Margaret was by herself with a duffle bag full of clothes and a sign that read, ‘Will work for food’.

I put my groceries in my Subaru Brat and asked her about her situation. She was a school teacher, laid off due to budget cuts, single, 55-years old, and had just been evicted from her apartment.  I told her to hop in my car, and I offered her a job as a nanny/housekeeper.   At the age of 32, I was completing the circle my dad taught me to draw twenty years earlier.

My wife and I were expecting our daughter, Cara, and had an extra bedroom. I offered Margaret free room and board plus six dollars an hour to watch over our seven-year-old son and take the load off my very pregnant wife.

She not only did those things, she was also a speech therapist, and she worked with my son who was having trouble pronouncing his words due to an inner ear infection when he was younger.  Margaret stayed with us for about six months, until she got a job as a teacher in another school district. I didn’t want her to go, but we all have our paths.

But, it’s the second homeless person I knew that I want to talk about, Dawn.   I was 23 years young, attending college, and braver than I am now.  I was also my father’s son, so risk became almost second nature, especially when someone was being bullied or manipulated.  I have never liked bullies.

I was shooting pool in a dive bar in Arlington, Texas.  I was taught by the greatest pool hustler I’ve ever seen, my grandfather.  From the time I was able to see over the top of a billiards table, until I moved to Texas in 1979, Grandpa Reed taught me every single trick in the book, and some that weren’t even mentioned in the book (and never will be).  So, being twenty-three, I used to set up shop in an old bar or pool hall and make the rent.

One night, I noticed a girl, about nineteen or so, run through the bar and into the women’s restroom. The key to hustling pool is a clear head, so I was drinking Diet Coke and water.  My opponents were drinking whiskey and beer.   I was up $50 when the girl ran through the bar.  She looked like she’d fought and lost a one round bout with the Terminator.  As the scene played out, a big white guy in a black trench coat walked into the bar and scanned the crowd.

Ah, the aforementioned Terminator.

I walked over to the bar to order another Diet Coke, and he asked me if I’d seen a short white blonde come into the bar.

Ah, the damsel in distress.

I told him I saw someone fitting that description down at the other bar across the way.  He laid a $5 bill on the counter and said, “Thanks, pal.”  After he left the bar, I went to the restroom, opened the door and yelled in, “If you want to escape, I can get you safely away.”

The girl looked at me like she’d just won the lottery and came out of the restroom.  I grabbed her hand and led her to my car.  Once inside, I saw The Terminator coming out of the bar I led him to, and I started my car before creeping out of the lot, unnoticed.

I found out the girl was nineteen, from Tulsa, Oklahoma, and on her way to Houston when she was detained by said Terminator at the bus station.  He’d been abusing her for about a week and was planning on pimping her out.

I took her to my apartment and cleaned her up.  She had no clothes, no anything, just a lot of bruises and apprehension. My roommate, Eddie, came home and knew I was in rehab mode, so he just went to bed.

The next day I took the $50 and some more cash I had laying around and bought her some clothes and make up. After a few days had passed, I took her to my store manager, Mr. Wright, and got her a job in the floral department.  She was a natural.  Two months later, she had her own place.  Six months later she was the department head.  We never saw the Terminator again.

I’ve always wondered why or what makes a bully.  After I told my dad what I’d done, he told me all that a bully requires to exist is a willing victim.

I don’t know about the willing part.  I’ll always be on the victim’s side of things.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR  ‘Shipwrecked, Abandoned, Misunderstood’, but he still has the things his father instilled in him – humility, respect and love.  In spite of 25 years behind bars, he continues to wake up every day holding on to his humanity and on a mission to change the world for the better.

John Green #671771
C.T. Terrell Unit A346
1300 FM655
Rosharon, TX 77583


The Smell Of Rain On Death Row

My earliest memories are from when I was five or six, maybe younger.  We had a side porch and when it was raining outside, my brother, cousins, and I would sing out at the rain, “Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.”  There is a smell that rain gives off, and I can’t name it, but it is the same scent I can smell when it rains where I am now.

I carry a scar with me from back then, too.  When I was little, I fell asleep on the couch, which had a shelf over it, holding a mini stereo.  The cord was hanging down, and I was such a wild sleeper that I got tangled in the cord and pulled the stereo down on my head, splitting my ear open.   I don’t remember that part, but I remember how they had to hold me down at the hospital to stitch my ear up because I was terrified of needles.

My heart feels sorrow when I think back to those memories now, knowing that most of the people from that life are gone.  I wish I could go back there, to the side porch.

Sitting on death row, you think about a lot of things.  Having a death sentence is just that – having it – until the time comes when there is a very real possibility an execution date could be given.  That’s when the term ‘the shit hits the fan’ becomes part of the equation.  That’s when the wondering starts working on you, the thinking and trying to figure out what’s what in this life you have lived so far.

Sometimes I want to know what’s to come, but other times I don’t.  There are times when I think about death so much that it becomes like a physical being, filling the space around me and pressing down on my soul.  It’s then that the nervousness threatens to consume me.  When I lay down at night I close my eyes and slow my breathing and try to feel it, the nothingness, a sleep from which I will never wake up.

But, I still have to shake it off.  Consciousness is all I’ve ever known.  Smelling the rain is what I know.

Travis Runnels, is a published author, who is currently working on his second novel.

Travis Runnels #999505
3872 FM 350
Livingston, TX 77351

Let Us Break Men In Our Image

Most prisoners housed in solitary confinement for extensive periods of time, at some point, will see in the mirror an almost unrecognizable Dr. Frankenstein like creation.  Their own disfigured features are the result of the institution’s mode of dismembering faculties and a person’s natural resistance to being tortured.

Some choose suicide rather than be a co-conspirator in their own dehumanization.  The most atrocious part is not necessarily when we experience our intellect losing the battle with our instincts to preserve whatever fragile fragments of sanity we have miraculously salvaged.   Nor is it the pressure of our desire to make sense out of no sense crushing our conscience.  No, the most atrocious part may be the toxic chemical combustion of our hyper sensationalized reactionary parts, most of which are undetectable to the untrained eye until there is a violent explosion of highly flammable feelings. Including one feeling in particular I have discovered in which the source of the pressure, the desire to escape the inescapable fate that is my institutionalization, has evolved just as much as my necessity to breathe oxygen, drink water, or eat food.

It is a God like force we know as self preservation.  We each have immaterial faculties like our will, our reason, our emotions, and any inmate who is genuinely interested in rehabilitation cannot put his or her human nature up for ransom, even under the illusion that it is payment for a debt to society.  Not when this debt requires one’s agencies of independence to be traded for a politically induced state of permanent  dependency.

Let me be clear, as I want to leave absolutely no room for any misinterpretation or doubt about what I mean  by the title, ‘Let Us Break Men In Our Image.’  The Tennessee Department of Corrections, while acting under the official capacity of state law, demands at gunpoint that every aspect of my functioning be in full compliance with my own dehumanization.  The ultimate goal is to incapacitate my rights, incapacitate my mind, incapacitate my heart, and incapacitate my soul, until I have no power, until I have no will, until I have no reason, until I have no conscience, nor feelings, nor individuality.  Until I have no potential to survive the challenges of the day to day struggle to adjust and fit in outside these prison walls, nor even so much as love myself enough to care.

By the time some inmates are unleashed on society, after having long endured the post traumatic stress disorder like effects of extensive psychological warfare, it’s too late.  It’s too late when it takes the form of an impulsive, irrational, unprovoked criminal act because we’ve been left with nothing of our humanity but our instincts.

The majority of the institutionalized will end up back in state or federal custody, and in actuality, many will have never left.  The institution was designed, by its nature, to metamorphosis into a living and breathing replica of its own likeness.  You can call the system Torture and Dehumanization of Prisoners by State and Federal Design, or tough on crime, or you can even call it criminal justice.

As for me, I’ll just call what is left of the so called ‘department of corrections’ what it is.   I’ll just call it, this broken thing, that keeps reproducing these broken things…

The author, James Smith, has served nearly twenty years and will be eligible for parole in 2056.
James Smith #323820
P.O. Box 2000
Wartburg, TN 37887



I Love You

I am still your dad, and I love you so,
More today than years ago.
Blame no one else… I am the one,
Forgive me now, for the wrong I’ve done.

So blind I was, I just couldn’t see,
How much you meant to me.
Now the chance I had is gone,
I’m a broken man, choices none.

Each passing night when I should sleep,
I see your faces, for you I weep.
Your trusting smiles of innocent charm,
I hold no more within my arms.

Within the eve of every day,
I bend my knees and heavenly pray.
Heavenly Father, guide them well,
Don’t let them suffer this living hell.

If I could undo the hurt from the past,
I’d give you love, smiles and laughs.
If I had one wish here today,
I’d wish these words for you to say,

“Daddy, I love you…”

Troy J. Clark #999351
Polunsky Unit D.R.
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351


They locked me up at twenty-one,
And then they set me free at sixty-three,
All the things I have seen and done,
They still haunt me in my dreams.

All those years in prison,
I couldn’t begin to tell you how it feels;
Of the pain that comes from living,
And of the death which holds no fear.

Even, if now, he were to visit,
I know I would not shed a tear,
Because they locked me up at twenty-one,
And set me free at sixty-three.

But everyone I love is gone,
And now it’s only me.

Robert McCracken LG8344
175 Progress Drive
Waynesburg, PA 15370

Imagine That

“To understand the flavor of wine, you must drink it.  However, to understand its nature and the essence of wine itself, you must become a winemaker. You must grow grapes with care and attention and then you must stomp and dance upon them to press out the juice.” – David Spangler

In the Information Age more than any other time in history, the notion of ‘walking in the shoes’ of another is widely disseminated in conversation, in print, and throughout social media, while few people actually accomplish such a thing properly and many more don’t attempt to.

Why is the notion of ‘walking in the shoes’ of others so widespread, but rarely attempted?

While the internet makes the notion available, it may be impossible for a person to completely ‘walk in someone’s shoes’ – or put another way, to completely empathize and understand someone else’s experiences.  It’s hard enough with family and friends, and the gap only widens between people of a different race, culture, gender, time period and class.

But, let’s try.  Travel this path with me, try on these shoes.

Imagine coming home from a hard day of work, kicking off your shoes, and dropping your coat and bag at the front door.  You make your way through your own home, seeking the arms of your significant other.  In warm anticipation you open your bedroom door, hoping to surprise your lover.  But, when it swings open you are shocked to discover them making love to a stranger in your bed.

How would you feel if you came home one day to a strangely quiet home, the children’s toys freshly scattered about the living room floor, and the television displaying a colorful picture of a Dragon Ball Z cartoon?

The scent of burning turkey diverts your attention, and when you investigate, you find an unattended kitchen. You turn off the stove and pull the burnt turkey out of the oven.  Smoke clouds the air, causing you to gag.  This makes you drop the pan in the sink and retreat to the bathroom for fresh air.  In the bathroom you notice your lover’s jewelry laid on the counter top next to an overflowing bathtub, with the water still pouring.

In deeply seated panic and confusion, you run throughout the home in search of your family, but you find no one. You call their cell phones and only get through to voice mail.  This makes you yell their names from the pit of your stomach, only to hear the echo of your own voice yell back.

Picture being trapped on the top floor of a burning fifty story building with no escape from the horrors of the hellish flames.  You make your peace with dying in such a painful way, and within seconds the fire engulfs your entire being, the pain indescribable.

However, a glimmer of hope soothes your mind when you see a firefighter within reach.  He raises the fire hose toward your scorching body, only for the extinguisher to spray gasoline instead of water, incinerating your soul.

Imagine twelve individuals with ice picks for fingers who decide to point blame toward you and viciously poke your body from every angle.  When you try to run away, you only end up in the arms of a mob. They start to beat you senseless with lead gavels.

Once the beating is done, you lie on the cold street, paralyzed and gasping for breath while drowning in your own blood.  Your last recollections are of people relishing the moments of your mortal devastation.

How would you feel if you were screaming for help, but no sound came out of your mouth?  You had a knife stabbed in your back and people walked past you, not noticing you slowly die on the side walk because you were invisible.

Picture being a baby trapped in the polluted womb of a drug addicted mother who feeds you amphetamines throughout the entire pregnancy, causing you to be born addicted to a toxic substance, forcing you to lie crying, craving the milk of death.

Imagine lying in a clear, glass casket for all to view while in a church at your own funeral, then watching loved ones and haters alike, slowly exit the church after your eulogy is read.  What disturbs you most is the conviction on everyone’s face that you will never be seen again.

How would you feel when placed into an open grave, in that same glass casket, still breathing.  The more you beg them to stop, the more dirt is shoveled in the hole, the darker it becomes.  The dust starts to dry your throat and you experience a death silence, so silent you can hear the thumps of your own heart slowly stop.

The metaphoric and symbolic language I use are my attempts to make you an emotional pair of shoes, styled as closely as possible to the ones I presently wear on my feet.

These shoes belong to an African American man who has been incarcerated for a murder he did not commit.  Yes.  I am innocent.  My sense of pain and loss due to twenty years of this continued experience cannot be fully described.

My reality is one of injustice.  I believe real love and humanity is created when we attempt to understand others.  We become inspired to act and prevent injustices such as the one I suffer.

Early in this incarceration, I became bitter and hateful against those who persecuted me, but it was too consuming to hold on to.  Hope, faith and love fills my heart, but I’m sharing with you a glimpse of my pain, because you would not be able to appreciate my light without knowing my darkness.  Some people won’t feel my pain, but I will try again to be understood.

I’m stabbed repeatedly
By the knife of misery,
I campaigned for many years
But the world ain’t hearing me.
My soul dying from its wounds,
But ya’ll ain’t feeling me,
The very hands of time
Is right here killing me.
Softly, I’m falling down
Like a brown autumn leaf,
I reach for the warm sun
But its light I don’t see.
To find my lost seeds
Leon and Koby,
To come and hug me
Before they slug me.
I don’t care what the world thinks
As long as ya’ll love me,
With that said,
How can I ever feel lonely?
But I feel dead
Then where in the hell is my dead homies?
Its too many smiley faces
From strangers who don’t love me.
So often, I’m isolated,
Like in a coffin for days,
My thoughts get lost
In my old hood like a maze.
To see yellow rain
Fall from the ceiling is strange,
Muthafuckas out there
Pissing on my grave.

These shoes are too harsh for the average person to walk in for very long, especially when I’ve already worn the ‘soul’ out of them.  I apologize for asking anyone to walk in them, nobody should have to.  Help me get rid of ‘em, by throwing them on the highest telephone line and leaving them there as a symbol of shoes that no one will ever have to wear again.  Imagine that…

Leon Benson #995256
4490 W. Reformatory Road
Pendleton, IN 46064
(Due to mailroom restrictions, any communication with Leon Benson is required to be written or typed on notebook lined paper.  Unfortunately, he cannot receive printed correspondence.)


A New Beginning Awaits Us

The windows here at the MCI Norfolk Security Housing Unit extend from floor to ceiling, about eight feet high, and only five inches wide, impossible for anyone to escape through.  The Plexiglas is clear.  That surprised me, because most segregation units I’ve landed in have cell windows that are frosted over from the outside, making them impossible to look through.  Here, there are trees and lots of wildlife.  I see the occasional hawk looking for a bite to eat or a blue pickup truck driving ever so slowly along the perimeter fence.  Here, we’ve got a view.

This morning I got in a good workout and took a birdbath in my sink. As I hung up my laundry on the clothesline beside my bunk, a golden stream of sunshine poured into my cell.  Drawn to its warmth, I sat down yoga style and crossed my legs at the base of my window, looking out at the nearby gravel and moss.  As I peered through the glass, I noticed a small insect climbing up the window’s sheer face.  An ant was on the inside of the pane, a rare visitor to my cold prison cell.  I gave it a closer look, aided by the sunlight outside that illuminated his semi-transparent body.  He was red.  Should I crush him?   I’d hate to lose track of him and later awake to find him gnawing on a piece of my leg.  Plus, he was likely a scout!  What if he found a crumb and rushed back to tell his army that there was food in my cell?

Twice I held my finger poised above his fragile body, and twice I aborted the assault.  The longer I stared at him, the more I was impressed by his tiny, intricate design.  Surely, in a thousand years, I could never create something so amazing.  So, why should I crush him?  It’s not like cutting down a tree and knowing I could plant another.  So, I let him live, and he continued his journey up the window pane.

“A Stupid Little Bug”

About halfway up the window pane, he slipped and fell, dropping a few hundred of his own body lengths and smacking his tiny self against the sill.  Yet, within a matter of seconds, he was back up and remounting the glass.  The fall didn’t even daze him, though it would certainly have bruised the life out of me. Extremely interested now, I sat watching him scale the glass again, even cheering for him, as each attempt ended in disaster.  He climbed, slipped, and his plunge ended, once again, on cold steel.  I couldn’t help but smile at how stupid the little bug was.  As I watched him try, yet again, my vision refocused onto a blue pickup truck driving by, past the electric barbed wired fence perimeter, driven by a prison guard making good money for driving in circles all day.  Maybe we’re not so much better than the ant?  At least he was trying.  At least he was moving forward.  Quitting wasn’t a part of his vocabulary, I realized, as I watched the blue pickup disappear from view.  The idea of giving up wouldn’t make sense to the ant.  He was programmed to always keep going, keep trying… How come we humans don’t share the ant’s drive to conquer the hurdles in our own lives?

Anyway, the ant made his way about two-thirds up the pane, and I decided to play human helper and not let him fall again.  I grabbed a yellow envelope and held it flush on the window, a few inches below him, like a safety net.  My arm got tired just holding the envelope. He fell twice – once about a foot from the top and again a few inches further up.  If he had chosen to explore the yellow envelope rather than remount the window, I would have simply blown him out under my cell door and sent him on his way.  But both times when he hit the paper, he was back on the glass before I could even get a good look at him.  His enthusiasm made me happy.  I was intrigued to see what would happen when he reached the top of the window.

“A Journey to Nowhere”

And, he did reach the top.  I held my face within inches of him as his antennae touched the black sealant.  He examined it briefly, then turned and scurried off toward the left side of the window.  When he reached the sealant there, he turned around and headed for the right side. This went on for about ten minutes.  Finally, I told him he was on his own, and I pulled the envelope away from the window.  Of course, once the safety net was gone, he slipped off the glass and plummeted to the bottom.  I leaned down to see what shape the fall had left him in and found him crumpled up in a grave of sealant.  He was still moving but only a little, so I left him and decided to eat my lunch.

There wasn’t much to the lunch.  SHU time gets even harder when you’re living on state food.  As I finished off my oatmeal cookie, I looked over to see if my hurt ant was healthy enough to enjoy a sliver of my second oatmeal cookie.  But wait!  He was back on the window pane!  I couldn’t believe it – four inches up from the bottom and moving along like it was the thing to do!  I examined him closely and noticed that all of his parts seemed to be working just fine.  Since I was by myself, with no books or a celly to help pass the time, I had nothing better to do than watch this little guy climb the window for about an hour.  In between, I cleaned my cell, drank some water to hydrate myself for the next workout, and sat down at my desk to write this essay.  All the while, I intermittently watched the ant.

It didn’t make sense.  He had fallen about a dozen times and reached the top twice since I ate.  But he still kept on climbing.  Shouldn’t he have, by now, figured out that there’s nothing up there for him?  ‘Why does he keep climbing?’  I wondered.  I stood looking at him, my face just inches from his.  At one point he stopped moving and twittered his antennae at me.  It was as if he were saying, ‘I just like to climb, buddy!  It’s all about the climb!’

At that moment I came to realize that we all, at one time or another, fail and fall down in life, but like this determined ant, we must never stop fighting, never stop climbing.  Regardless of the destination, the climb is what it’s all about.  And when we are unwilling to give up, a new beginning awaits us all.


Written by a man serving life.
Darrell Sharpe #W80709
P.O. Box 43
Norfolk, MA 02056