In 2010, I joined a creative-writing workshop taught by a volunteer at New York’s Attica prison, where I was incarcerated at the time. A handful of us sat in a half circle in a classroom in an otherwise deserted school building on prison grounds. We were reading one of the Best American Essays collections. I checked to see where the stories had originally been published and eventually decided to send a piece about gun control to one of the listed magazines. In 2013, The Atlantic published “A Convicted Murderer’s Case for Gun Control,” my professional debut.
Around that time, my writing instructor secured funding for a pilot community-college liberal-arts program in Attica. Just 23 of the 2,300 men in the prison made the cut, including those of us who had been in the workshop. Attica was a crazy place in which to study or find peace of mind. Alarm bells rang. Men cut and stabbed one another. Tear gas dropped. After class, I’d return to my cell in C Block and sometimes watch sanctioned fight nights, in which two prisoners would brawl on the tier while guards looked on and wagered on them.
This is how I first met Gerard Johnson, who calls himself Twist. He was 23 years old, one of the brawlers, and my neighbor. He had a lot of problems back then, not least because he had renounced his affiliation with the Bloods. When my cell door popped for evening class, I’d hear Twist tell his neighbor in the cell across the tier that he wished he could be in college. He was a knucklehead, but he was also a curious kid who yearned to learn. I shared with Twist a book of essays; he was drawn to W. E. B. Du Bois. In the midst of the chaos, Twist and I would talk about what I was learning in sociology class. Leaning on our gates, we would discuss questions such as, Do our circumstances shape our lives? Do we make choices that carve our own paths? Do we even have choices?