Rewriting Their Prison Stories, Sentence by Sentence

A first-of-its-kind national journal of literature and art gives voice to hundreds of people affected by incarceration

Kentel Weaver recently left prison after 19 years. “And it’s been great,” he said, recounting the joys of being able to eat cheesecake at a Barnes & Noble café and watch Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

What led him to prison and what was it like inside? That is his own story to tell. Because while he was in prison, he earned an associate’s degree from Bunker Hill Community College as part of the Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT), and through his classes, he said, he learned about the importance of words, and the power in being able to control your own narrative.

“They’re going to call us superpredators; they’re going to call us gang members,” he said. “They’re going to call us everything under the sun that’s negative.”

“I don’t want my story being told by nobody else. … I don’t want my story told by Oprah,” he said. “I heard this phrase: ‘Until the lion learns how to read and write, the story of the hunt will always be told by the hunter and the lion will always lose.’”

Weaver spoke at a celebration last month for reSentencing, a national journal of literature and art published by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life. The journal, released last year and now featured in an exhibit at Barnum Hall on the Medford/Somerville campus, contains 150 stories, poems, essays, photographs, artworks, and letters created by people across the country impacted by the prison system.

Weaver’s two contributions, small pieces of his own story, include “Psychological Warfare,” a poem about an everyday indignity of prison life: being unable to sit while using the prison phones because the cords are too short.

The journal was conceived and edited by TUPIT Director Hilary Binda and Journal Coordinator John Lurz, both faculty members at Tufts, and supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts and Tisch College. They believe it to be the first national journal of its kind.

They had two goals. One was to give people affected by incarceration a forum to reflect on their experiences before, during, and after prison and to educate others about the prison system. “It’s so amazing to see your own words externalized,” said Lurz, an associate professor of English. “And we really wanted that for these writers.”

The other aim was to break down walls between imprisoned and non-imprisoned populations, because, as the editors write in their introduction, “one way that mass incarceration sustains itself is by keeping those outside ignorant of what it’s like for those inside.”

Reaching out to other higher education in prison programs, they sent out a call for entries across the United States. The response was overwhelming. They received about 400 submissions, most of them by email. A team of Tufts faculty, alumni, and students, along with a board of writers and intellectuals—some with first-hand experience of incarceration—read and discussed the submissions.

Then, when the team members were almost done with their evaluation, they were surprised by another 400 or so entries that arrived through the regular mail, many having been delayed by COVID disruptions and prison mail protocols, and the process began again. Whether or not they made it into the journal, all of the approximately 800 entries have been preserved by the Tufts Archival Research Center.

In their introduction, the editors give an overview of the pieces: “Sometimes this has involved describing the realities of prison life: the empty, repetitive days; the physical and psychological isolation and violence of the penitentiary; the moments of true humanity. Other times, these writers offer clear-eyed analyses of the structures that determine the fate of so many while also imagining vibrant new worlds beyond the bars of the cell.”

“We just got so many letters from people saying that they felt joy at hearing that they were being published,” said Binda, a senior lecturer in civic studies. “That they felt heard by one another, that they felt seen, that they felt like somehow a part of them had gotten out. That there was some sense of freedom.”

They were able to send printed copies to the prison facilities of everyone who submitted, which added to the sense of connection that comes from turning individual voices, separated by so many barriers, into a community through one publication. Hearing back from people all across the country about the power of that connection among incarcerated artists,” Binda said, “was more meaningful—even spiritually so—than I could have anticipated.”

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