To My Big Sis, Judith Tannenbaum

My love for my mentor and big sis, Judith. I know death is rising over the mountains, slowly, and the
pain must be enormous. Yet Judith finds and creates beauty and peace even in the midst of a hurricane. She transforms in the middle of death. Judith has been dealing with great physical and mental pain all of her life, and yet she is like a birthing star, always growing and sending out and being love. I don’t know what my world will be without her, hollow and empty.

But it’s not about me, and I am sure she left some of her heart and spirit inside each of us— a shining light in darkness. Judith’s curiosity and loyalty is unmatched even by goddesses or gods. If she believed in you, she inspired you to be yourself and change the world, if only the small
world you knew. She lies there holding hands with death, and yet no bitterness enters her heart, and joy fills her spirit. She has made everyone better by her presence and walk in this life, and Judith’s love and magic live on in all of us who knew her and were and still are blessed by her.

Judith, you left no one behind because we all go with you and you with us! I love you, Big Sis.

Today I spoke to Judith for

the last time.

She is the bravest person I know

to keep being Judith

despite the tremendous pain

cutting at her body.

She said her time is close

to gone and reminded me

to write something

knowing already that I would.

She is my mentor and big sis,

and one of my best friends ever.

She inspired and saw in me things

I would have never seen in myself.

I grew wings because of her.

Our spirits and hearts and our love

were linked from the beginning.

Even in our silence—you like

Mr. Samuel Beckett—we treasured

our silence.

I missed you long before

you were gone.

We will meet again long

across time and space

beyond dreams and boundaries.

December 3 and 4, no word from Judith and I keep trying to call. Anja received an email saying death is very close, so I picked up the frequency of my calls, and we connected briefly and expressed our love. Yesterday, I got a card from Judith, and she said it was a prayer she read or recited each time she went into San Quentin.

I knew she was gone three days before Anja tried to tell me over the phone. I asked her not to say those words, and I had to leave the phone because what I already knew in silence became too strong. I tried to get away and went outside and had nowhere to go—no place to hide my tears—and a stormy dark sky betrayed me and did not rain. It had been raining for two days. Judith Tannenbaum, my mentor and big sister—I did not get to hug and say so long—I’ll see you some other time and space over there where loved ones go. Another dimension beyond dreams, darkness and light. I missed you already even before you were gone. I’ll be free someday too, and we will fly together—someday, Big Sis. We wanted to do poetry on stage together. I love you.

I knew Judith

was physically gone

yet I called her number

and let the phone ring anyways

knowing no one would pick up.

It would take decades of rain

for my tears to be unseen.

There is not enough rain

to hold my pain,

not enough rain

to hide the pain

of my not being there.

You were always there

like an ancient redwood.

You told me you lay

on the floor

and found solace

from a radio show

in New Orleans,

radio that took you away

from the pain.

I should have been beside you

on the floor listening.

I should have been beside you

on long walks or hikes up Mt. Tam.

I should have been beside you

on stage, going back and forth

reading poetry.

I should have been beside you


Spoon Jackson

First published by The Justice Arts Coalition



Illustration by Anja Rydén
The moment is now
one star in a collective
of stars

We must now
celebrate our differences
our sameness
our shameness

We must elevate
and celebrate the mess
we created
we must step deep
away from the shore

We must step deep
into the shit
and transform it

Now is the time
now is the moment
the call to love
the call to celebrate love

And realize
there are no distant stars
but only one galaxy of stars

We must gather
at the water holes
at the river of our souls

We must gather
like water buffalos
in love

Spoon Jackson


Bartstow - the film

"Barstow" Rainer Komers' documentary is screening at SF DocFest 5th and 7th of June! The film

looks at what life is like on the opposite side of the American Dream. Barstow is also Spoon's hometown and he reads excerpts from his and Judith Tannenbaum's memoir "By Heart" in the film.

"The film is a poignant and multi-layered portrait of the life and landscape of the Mojave Desert. Structured in a loose way, that almost allows comparisons to John Fahey's spare fingerpicking, like a skeletal blues lost in time, the film observes how life weaves itself in and outside the texture of an American life that the ideology of neo-liberal policies has completely forgotten. The voice of poet and inmate Stanley "Spoon" Jackson, who began serving a life sentence without possibility of parole in 1977 and has since then served time in more than a half dozen California state prisons, reads excerpts from his autobiography By Heart while images of a world suspended drenched in pure American mythology are intercut, drowned in the brutal reality and consequences of ruthless financial politics. BARSTOW, CALIFORNIA is truly the other side of the American dream." 



Uncuffed is a radio series with interviews produced by men inside Solano State Prison, aired on KALW.com radio. Spoon is one of them.
The producers come from all walks of life. They are poets, musicians, actors, and writers who share a passion for revealing the human side of incarceration.
Listen to all the stories on Uncuffed. Uncuffed is supported by Arts in Corrections, a program of the California Arts Council with funding from CDCR.


WHAT IS THE COLOR OF MERCY - Another no commutation

It finally started to rain again, the sweet smell scented with green. The tiny Lord Of The Rings mountains that surround the prison will fill out and be green with new growth. I try to focus my mind away from the rubbish, right now I'm pissed off, sad and my life unfocused. I just found out there was more commutations done last week. They interviewed this fellow LWOP over the phone on a Monday and called him back Wednesday to say they commuted his sentence. I'm happy for him. 

They interviewed me a year and a half ago, and right now I wonder what is the color of mercy. The guy they commuted, was like me the shooter. He was under 21. He had 15 years in the prison system. I have twice that 15 years and more. He was a first time offender, so was I. How many times must I be of service before my day comes? What is the color of mercy?
I have no money to palm any hands, no closed door friends or officials to report to in the dark. How many dogs must I kiss to get out of prison. I have only myself and my walk in realness.


Petition on change.org

Spoon has now been in prison 41 years. The Governor of California started to grant commutation to Life Without Parole prisoners last year. Spoon is still waiting for his turn. It's Governor Brown's last term in office. You can help by signing this petition on change.org to request the Governor to grant Spoon commutation

Sign here Spoon Jackson - A Poet 41 years in Prison is Seeking Redemption

The petition will be sent to the Governor November 2018, but it will stay open to sign until Spoon is free.



Uncuffed is a new radio series with interviews produced by men inside Solano State Prison, aired on KALW.com radio. Here's the first interview by Spoon: Free-spirited bluegrass musician remembers days riding the rails before his incarceration. The producers come from all walks of life. They are poets, musicians, actors, and writers who share a passion for revealing the human side of incarceration. Listen to all the stories on Uncuffed. Uncuffed is supported by Arts in Corrections, a program of the California Arts Council with funding from CDCR.


Seeking Redemption!

Please sign and share this petition requesting California Governor Jerry Brown to give a second chance to men and women with Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentences!

Spoon is one of them and we will soon make an individual petition for his case as well.

This is the Governor's last term, he already commuted over 20 LWOP sentences last year, and more is expected this year, it's the right time to do this!

Sign the petition at Change.org

Thank you for your careful consideration.

F.U.E.L. - Families United to End LWOP
Fair Chance Project - Geri Silva
Anti-Recidivism Coalition - Scott Budnick
Felony Murder Elimination Project - Joanne Scheer
California Families Against Solitary Confinement - Dolores Canales
Time for Change Foundation - Kim Carter
The Place4Grace - Karen McDaniel, M.A.
Life Support Alliance - Vanessa Sloane
Dean, Berkeley School of Law - Professor Erwin Chemerinsky
Words Uncaged - Professor Bidhan Chandra Roy
The Other Death Penalty Project - Kenneth Hartman
Silicon Valley DeBug
Unlock Tomorrow - Ray Adornetto
Liberation Prison Project - Thubten Choyki
Elizabeth Calvin - Attorney
Initiate Justice - Taina Vargas-Edmond
ACLU - Statewide
Restore Justice - Alex Mallick
#Cut50 - Michael Mendoza
Laura Sheppard - Attorney
Luis J. Rodriguez - Author and Activist
A New Path - Gretchen Burns Bergman
Collective Remake
Healing Dialogue and Action - Javier Stauring


Common at Lancaster - The Hope & Redemption Prison Tour - Excessive Sentencing


Spoon is sitting at the table saying ..."nothing human is alien to anybody" and ... "everybody in here are striving to be human"...


Spoon's poetry in German

For the first time Spoon has poems translated in another language.

"Felsentauben erwachen auf Zellenblock 8" are poems translated to German by Rainer Komers and edited by Jürgen Brôcan. Both are active in "Edition Offenes Feld", a group of writers and filmmakers. The book was published June 1st 2017.

The publisher BoD announces the book:
"Spoon Jackson's poems are, as his translator Rainer Komers writes, 'stiffs' *, written in lines, personally and directly,” they are straightforward messages from a reality that feels like raw meat. Jackson's poems are not focused on the prison life, but on the individual who has to live his life there, without any prospect of pardon, but always striving to preserve human dignity. Through the observation of nature and the memory of his youth, Spoon Jackson keeps his chin up and gives the reader irrevocable hope."
*"a stiff", or "kassiber" in German, is a secret message smuggled out of a prison by a (political) prisoner. The word has a Hebrew origin.

You can order the book at:


The POPS song (Pain Of the Prison System)

We heal our pain
With our love and light
And flow with all our might
Through the darkest night—
We shine like stars

Pain of the prison system
POPS – a place where we all let go
And let ourselves flow
A place where we can let go
And not be ashamed or put on a show

Cracks in the family
Cracks in the heart
Cracks in the soul
Cracks in the wall

Like the brilliant POPS people
We are—we learn how to fall
And still stand tall
And we learn how to fall
Without hurting ourselves

We heal our pain
With our love and light
And flow with all our might
Through the darkest night
We shine like stars

Cracks in the walls
From the storms life can bring
When caught up in the pain

We fall and get up, we fall
We fall and get up and learn how
To fall without hurting ourselves

We learn how to glow
Through the sting
Life can bring—we grow wings
And strive above the strife

Like the brilliant POPS people
We are—we let go
And not be ashamed or put on a show
We channel the pain
Into a creative thing

We heal our pain
With love and light
And flow with all our might
Through the darkest night

We heal our pain
With love and light
And flow with all our might
Through the darkest night
We shine like stars
We shine, We shine

 Spoon Jackson, March 2017
dedicated to POPS The Club (Pain Of the Prison System)


Latest on clemency chance and support

Ok latest news. The warden has done her part of the job. Now the rest lies with the Governor. If anyone still wants to send a support letter it's only to the Governor!

Include the commutation application case number: COM - 2009 – 14, and use Spoon's given name and cdc number: Stanley Jackson B92377!

Send to:
Governor Jerry Brown
c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814


New chance for freedom, CLEMENCY!

Spoon just sent an urgent message;  he has a chance to get out of prison because Governor Jerry Brown has actually started commuting some LWOP sentences, three men at Lancaster prison got theirs approved this week!
Spoon sent a commutation petition to the Governor in 2014. 

Now he’s asking everyone who knows him to please write the warden, DEBBIE ASUNCION and ask her to put Stanley Jackson B92377 ON THE LIST FOR CLEMENCY!
Include the commutation application case number: COM - 2009 – 14, and use Spoon's given name and cdc number: Stanley Jackson B92377!

This is the address for legal mail to the prison:

CSP - Los Angeles County
PO BOX 8457
Lancaster, CA 93539-8457

Feel free to use parts of this support letter (not all, it’s far too long!): 



Beyond The Box Writing Workshop

If you are interested in doing a writing workshop with Spoon, write a letter and work out arrangements with him, you can have snail mail correspondence, set up a prepaid phone call to prison connection and/or arrange a visit. 

Spoon Jackson B92377 
CSP - LAC, A5-105
P.O. Box 4430 Lancaster
CA 93539-4430 


Meat & Milk

Spoon recently wrote the introduction for Fury Young's debut poetry book, "Meat & Milk." Young is the producer of "Die Jim Crow," a concept album about racism in the U.S. prison system, which Spoon is a contributing artist to. Read Spoon's introduction below and buy a copy of "Meat & Milk" here.

I met this cat, this poet Fury Young, through my poetry mentor Judith Tannenbaum. I'd met Judith decades ago in a basement classroom at San Quentin State Prison. Judith taught poetry and inspired a whole new world and dimension to my doing time. Until then I was a prisoner who was beginning my journey as a student in life. I read, pondered, and studied books on almost every subject. I had come from the heart of the high desert and had only known small town desert life. I could leave the confines of incarceration for hours, even days, exploring the worlds that books had opened up to me.

I could have continued my journey in silence, with the love of knowledge and growth. I thought poetry was beyond me. The philosophies I read of Emerson, Spinoza, Plato, and Aristotle would quote and refer to poets, but I had never really read or studied poetry until I found my niche in Judith's class as a bard. I thought poems must come from some hidden, magical place, a place heavy with knowledge and wisdom.

Some spirit, muse, or magic moved me to create my first poem one Christmas Eve. Somehow I let go of my pre-conceived notions of what should and should not be. Some force, some sweet realness, engulfed me. The next Monday, I caught Judith in the hallway of the education building and handed her my poem. I had been in Judith's class, shades on day and night, in silence, for over a year. When she read the poem, all she could say – with tear-filled eyes – was “outrageous.”
After I began to write, I gradually realized that all my letters back home had been poetry too, that all along I had been writing poems. My life was the melody that flowed like free verse.

Poetry must touch the heart and soul, and later the mind. It takes you to a universal place – a spot inside that is personal and true. It must move the waters of your soul and travel to the mountaintop of your heart. Just like waves in the sea, and clouds in the sky. If poetry does not agitate or make you cry, mad, or warm your insides on a frosty day, then it must go deeper.

Do enjoy the journey of “Meat and Milk” – it takes you deep down into the dumpsters, down staircases, dark alleys, lighted subways, and warm beaches. I close with this poem inspired by Fury's work.


Back then
you had to have death
in your eyes.
Your voice
must not crack
but sound with fury.
You had to have death
in your walk
Even if you didn't
mean it.
Swag that showed
you knew
what you were doing,
and death
was like breathing.

Spoon Jackson

August 2016


No to death by incarceration - No to Proposition 62

I just saw an ad on TV by supporters of Proposition 62 (Repeal of the Death Penalty).*
Mike Farrell, president of Death Penalty Focus, claimed that a yes vote on Prop. 62 saves innocent lives on Death Row, by giving them all a Life Without the possibility Of Parole death sentence instead. What a myth and twist in thinking.
Would Mr Farrell be willing to debate any LWOP prisoners he has demonized? Or is he afraid of the truth?
Prop. 62 does not save any innocent lives on Death Row by re-condemning already condemned prisoners on Death Row to a LWOP death sentence.
A yes vote would garnish more tax payers funds with no returns. Mr Farrell stated in his bill that he will charge prisoners and their families and friends and take the pennies from prisoners slave wages.
Listen to the absurdity of this claim. He wants Prop. 62 to pass to save innocent lives on Death Row, when in fact innocent prisoners are better off on Death Row, where a poor person of color can get a real lawyer! Under Farrell’s bill, innocent LWOP’s will die in prison because they will get no legal representation.
Prop. 62 does nothing to save money, but gives more money to politicians, the prison industry, lobbyists and other companies that survive like maggots on the victims and their families, prisoners and their families and loved ones. A yes vote on Prop. 62 is a vote to continue on an endless LWOP path equally as hideous as Death Row.

In civilized countries around the world LWOP and the Death Penalty are considered barbaric, inhumane, cruel and unusual punishment. So why does Mike Farrell and the Death Penalty Focus push so hard to keep prisoners in limbo, and leave innocent, young, old, and first term offenders with LWOP sentences without any hope or road to freedom? At least on Death Row, death can free you from the fate of a LWOP sentence… I cannot grasp how anyone who cares about humanity can support LWOP or DP sentences.

Has Mike Farrell ever sat in a group with LWOP or DP prisoners to discuss the ramifications of LWOP sentences or discussed the human aspects of the penal system of justice and reform. Claiming that innocent lives will be spared by unbreakable, no hope LWOP sentences is myopic and absurd.

There is no humanity or reform in any of the statues of the Prop. 62 bill, no savings. In fact, in the long run it will cost more, because the racist implementing of LWOP sentences mainly target people of color and the poor and will keep prisons full of inmates without hope.
Getting rid of the Death Penalty for its twin; Life Without The Possibility Of Parole is not justice. There must be a path for redemption and second chances - for the young, for the old, for first term offenders, for the repented who messed up their lives and lost sight of what it is to be human, only to discover their humanity while incarcerated.

We are all human and nothing human is alien to any of us. Even those who have made huge mistakes, but have reformed. Some countries embrace change and humanity and see prisoners in their society as their brothers and sisters to one day be welcomed back to the society.
In Germany, Scandinavia, Jamaica and some countries in Africa, in their prison system, even for life sentences, there are paths to second chances, forgiveness and reform. American journalists have asked prison officials in Germany; why do you allow such reform programs in your prisons? The German officials said; these people in our penal system are our sisters and brothers and fellow citizens, and must be welcomed back to the society when reformed.

For your family and fellow citizens, vote no on Proposition 62, because it is the human and healing thing to do.



Nothing human is alien to anyone of us, someone said. As human beings, we all walk one foot in darkness, and one foot in light. Some people incarcerated strive for a balance of shadow and sun, and sublimate the thoughts or actions of darkness into transformation, awareness, and light—something positive.

When I came to the California Department of Corrections in the late 1970’s, there were actually good trades, self-help and educational programs. There was no point system, and transfers and programs you were involved in were based on your in-prison behavior. Your residence was determined by your choices. One was not as much punished over and over again, just because you were a prisoner. There were programs open to choices and change. Incarceration is inherently revenge and punishment—if you don’t believe it, spend some hours or a night in a prison or jail.

As punishment increased and became more politically attractive, most politicians abandoned the efforts, and the cause of restorative justice. They piled onto the penal system of punishment and inmate economics to win elections and line their pockets. They wanted a prison in every county when they should have been abolishing penal systems.

Politicians tightened the noose of taking away any working programs in prisons throughout the 80’s, 90’s and most of the 2000’s. They paused in 2006 and brought the word “rehabilitation” into the picture— California Department of Corrections and “rehabilitation.” But, they have barely started to live up to that word. Politicians feasted on the emotions and money of the public, victims on all sides, and treated prisoners like prunes. No programs of change for decades. In 2006, when the state brought the word “rehabilitation” back, I had an op/ed piece on self-rehabilitation published in the San Francisco Chronicle alongside a text by the current Honorable State Attorney General Kamala Harris. Both essays focused on rehabilitation.

When I came into California prison system, there were only 12 prisons. In 1980 the state brought in a point system based on some illusionary facts. A point system used to enhance the punishment of all prisoners and particularly LWOPs and other lifers. Although prisoners may not have broken any rules for years, their punishment were enhanced.

I was in Soledad prison at the time and they took me to classification committee and told me that based on their point system, I can go only to Folsom or San Quentin. Back then, both prisons were the last-stop prisons, before hell. I was under 21 years old, first time in prison and away from the heart of the high desert.

However, I wanted to create or make amends for the social contract I had broken in this land. I continuously strived to do and be the best, despite the lack of programs or incentives. Not because I owed the state or penal system anything, but because of love, truth, transformations inside myself that inspired me, and because it was the realness thing to do.

I took full advantage of any self-rehabilitative and educational programs available. It was a tragedy that led to my incarceration—tragic on all levels. I wanted to make amends, because my heart, soul and spirit were wounded by my actions, and had wounded others. Only forgiveness, growth, restoration and love could heal the tear I caused in the universe.

Tragedies sometimes opens and blows out one’s heart and soul to do and be better. It awakens you…why? I don’t know. I hope we all can continue to come together, instead of looking at prisoners as the enemies, but as brothers and sisters in society who have lost their way, humans who need to be restored and welcomed home. Restorative justice and prison reform and sentencing reforms need to happen. It has worked for the better in many countries, why not here? We all are human, and of the same species, as long as we come from Mother Earth or this planet. We are one collectively and we must embrace the endless pool of love inside all of us.

 I support the efforts of Geri Silva, Fair Chance Project, Anti Recidivism Coalition and Barbara Brooks, Sentencing and Justice Reform Advocacy. It’s about restorative justice, forgiveness, love, peace and realness. We all are human, and as such we must share our journeys.

First published in The Advocate, Volume 8 issue 3, Sentencing and Justice Reform Advocacy 


Waiting For Godot at San Quentin 1988

This is parts of a documentary made at the set up of a theater production at San Quentin State Prison in California. The play was open to the public and premiered 1988.
Director John Reilly
Produced by John Reilly and Global Village for the Beckett Project
Theater director Jan Jonson

"Godot in San Quentin" (1987) documents the production of "Waiting for Godot" by a cast of inmates from San Quentin Prison. Producer and director John Reilly and a crew spent four weeks at the maximum-security facility; rehearsal and performance sequences are intercut with footage of daily prison life and discussions with the principal characters.
Reilly has said that the inmates "do not `act' because they are not trained actors, but they feel the parts because they have lived the lives of Beckett's characters."
The Chicago Tribune http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1994-06-19/entertainment/9406190331_1_godot-samuel-beckett-marx-brothers

Read the story about the theater production from the point of view of one of the actors Spoon Jackson in: "By Heart, Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives"  by Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson
Get it here: http://www.newvillagepress.net/book/?GCOI=97660100959910


When I came to prison in 1978, ten days into 20 years old, a naive kid from the heart of the high desert, I wanted to pay for the wrong I had done. I was given Life Without the Possibility of Parole. I thought that could not mean forever and there must be a route to a second chance.
I started to grow up and know myself and evolve into a full human being with an understanding that all life mattered.  I was on my self-rehabilitation journey.  In 1990 the Deputy Commissioner of the Board of Prison Terms complimented me my writing accomplishments. He said I should write my way out of prison.

The present situation:  Spoon and his attorney have appealed the Habeas Corpus petition to the Federal court, the fact that the State Courts refused to uphold the mandatory State law. At the time they did the State petitions they had no way of knowing the State courts were not going to uphold the mandatory law - because Spoon’s federal Due process rights hadn't been violated until that moment.
Spoon’s attorney says “this would be a horrific abuse of justice if Stanley (Spoon) isn't allowed his legal right to have his LWOP (Life Without Parole sentence) reassessed simply because of a ridiculous catch-22 situation in the state court system”.

Open Letter                             

 Part 1

Dear James
I received your letter and Traverse petition in response to the Attorney General’s petition a few days ago.
I already had a sinking feeling that something had happened; that the Attorney General had come up with some trick to stall and forbid justice. A way to bar justice based on some technicality or rule. When I did not hear back from you in your timely manner I knew something had gone amiss.

The deadline of April 22 passed and my heart sunk. The Attorney General’s response and their ability to change colors and deny justice because a law favored the appellant was like looking at the sun and deny it is shining. The courts and the Attorney General get away with such injustice. This seems wrong and illegal.
Yet, I know they abolished slavery but continue to enslave for hundreds of years.

I am heartbroken. I hate that I must have forces like courts and Attorney Generals decide my physical fate.

I put hope on hold for a while and go deep and dive and be in the moment. Read, ponder and heal my injured spirit. I will rise again. If not in this life, then in another.

How was I supposed to know the State Courts, on all three levels, would deny me a hearing and due process before it happened? As a poet perhaps I should have known. Nevertheless, the injustice is happening again, now on a Federal level.

I know it must be common practice for the Attorney General’s office and the courts to lie, cheat and hide rules and tricks to get out of applying the law. The courts sadly, turn a blind eye because they are a part of the tricks and hidden agreements. They say ignorance of the law is no excuse. But, when the court system and justice system have secret rules and laws that only they have access to, they say, well you were ignorant.

Part 2

Heartbroken, but blessed. Bless the courts, Attorney Generals, prosecutors, lawyers and politicians.
May you never know the pain of having hope stolen over and over again.
May you never know the pain of having your life defined by one bad act.
May all of your lives be blessed and fat on holidays and other special occasions.
May you never know the pain of having an ocean, lake or trees only one hundred yards away for nearly forty years and not be able to climb, smell, taste and dip.

Why not now, choose one good thing in life I have done and define me by that.

Then you might see love.
Stay blessed.


The case is still not closed.


Nowhere But Barstow And Prison

                I must speak loud quietly, so that the entire tier does not hear my conversation. I stand in the prison day room right next to the bone-crushing metal door, speaking on an old black-handed phone from the 1960s. This one is embedded in cement and steel.
                I ask, “Judith, what makes a poem classic?” I am soaked in sweat from a non-desert sticky heat that bubbles up on the skin – and off the windowless foot-thick concrete walls – like moss. “No Beauty in Cell Bars” and “Beauty in Cell Bars” have been published and republished for over twenty years. Are my poems classics?
                Silence fills the phone lines. Silence like watching the great Bill Irwin do one of his wordless skits on Broadway. Silence like the late Richard Pryor  smiling after one of his jokes that shocked an audience at the Apollo Theatre.
                Then I hear Judith's voice, one of the few voices that causes me to pause, ponder, listen, and sniff the air like a big cat. ”Spoon...” Judith's stuttering speech searches for the most lucid and wise words to impart her vision. I imagine the tickled look on her face. She's probably turning her head to the sky, eyes bright with drama, there in her apartment.
                “I mean” I say “who decides what makes a piece of writing a classic? Is     there a board or something?”
                “Spoon...” Still giddy, Judith's voice flows up and down like a brook.
                “Judith, I'm serious. You know I've been nowhere but Barstow and               prison.”
                More silence and then “Wow!” which caught me off guard. I was waiting for Judith's answer to my question about classics but instead she says, “Man, that would make a great country song title.”
                “What would?”
                “Nowhere but Barstow and prison.”
And there she goes again, sending me down another path that eventually only brings more questions. I put the phone down and stroll back to the cell, pondering how Judith seem able to inspire magic phrases that have me creating poems, essays, and songs.

                My life had no meaning, no pulse, before prison. I was ignorant about all prison ways. I came from Barstow California, the heart of the high desert, the natural world – purple and red clay mountains, open spaces – and found nothing natural about cells. Even the air was tainted and twisted with unrealness, fleeting hope, and violent unrest. I was naïve and also unconnected to any inner spirit.
                During my trial, my mom and dad came to visit me. I was twenty years old and sat across the table looking at my parents. The environment did not fit them any more than it suited cattle to live in trees. My dad said one of the longest sentences I'd ever heard him speak: “Boy, you better pray!”
                My trial was quick for a death penalty trial and I was sentenced to life in prison. Trying to grasp a life without parole sentence at age twenty was like trying to hold a forest fire in my hands or an ocean in a tea cup.

Pre-prison, my life had never been one of words. I could barely read, add or subtract, and I spoke as my father did to me, in one word sentences. I sat stunned during my trial by all the words the DA, my lawyer, and the judge used. I had no idea what those words meant. I told myself then that I would never again let unknown words trap me and I started studying the dictionary.
                Once at San Quentin, I checked out all the books I could get from the prison library and education department. In one notebook I wrote down definitions. I used my favorite words in sentences in another notebook. I became enraptured with words and reading. I said certain words aloud many times and pondered a word in the way I thought of the garden in front of the prison chapel, or a sparrow singing in the tree by the captain's porch. I learned a few words each day and each one brought a geyser erupting inside my mind and soul. The more words I read and studied, the clearer life became.
I became richer and deeper inside. I could see, taste, feel and touch the growth taking shape inside me and understood things I had never understood before. It was like I walked down an endless hallway full of dark rooms and each room I passed, a light came on and I learned something new. I had to choose to grow, which meant to get to know myself and find my niche, bliss, and myth in life. I had to till the endless gardens in my mind, heart and soul.

                On a whim, I signed up for a poetry class. Judith was the teacher and her patience and belief in me, even before she knew me, inspired me. I sat for a year in her class in silence. Judith's trust in me, along with the power of art to heal, brought my silent desert life and world to paper like fresh rains in Death Valley.
                Judith had known as a child that she would be a writer. I had no indication of my fate when I was a boy. As a kid, I failed all my classes. I did not believe I could learn anything. I had accepted that I would dwell and die in the heart of the high desert, on Crooks Street, surrounded by those purple and red clay mountains that appeared to be the whole world.
                As a boy and a young man I mainly saw the destructive aspect of myself, but for eight years after I came to prison I read, studied, debunked, and peeled off layers of false history propaganda that had clogged my vision and dreams – those misguided histories I had been force-fed like a motherless lamb. For eight years I stayed to myself at San Quentin and avoided crowds. Although my heart, mind, and soul burned with thoughts, vibes and feelings, I let none surface and stepped over wounded, dying or dead bodies as everyone else did.
                In the poetry class, I began to see the unconditional beauty and love in myself that mothers see in their sons. Judith inspired me to reach into the empty pockets inside myself to bring forth treasures of realness. She validated what I did not know I believed in: the magic of words to heal and free, like the sun validates a seed.
                I began to see this magic shape my fate as my poems began to be published, as doors opened to other arts when I played Pozzo in the 1988 San Quentin production of Waiting for Godot, as I heard of miracles like Samuel Beckett reading my poems. Despite the fact that I'd been in prison for a decade at that point, this magic gave my life a purpose.

                Now I've been behind bars for over three decades and I know all too well making a life of meaning can make being in prison harder or easier. Living with meaning is harder when I don't get to travel, meet people, sit out in nature, give poetry readings, promote the books or CD's I've been part of creating, or meet with other artists and publishers. A life of meaning is easier when I get to mentor young people, give back, and be of service to people. It is especially pleasing to be able to detour and inspire a youngster to stop and ponder a bad choice and not stroll down a dark path to prison. We always have choices and it's just that often we are not conscious of that fact. I think that being a bard allows me to touch young people in the way only poets can. I can relate to failing, being unloved, abused, lost, violent and biased on so many levels because I lived that life. I can assure youngsters that we are all eating from the same bowl of soup.
                I know how sometimes, the older kids become, the more life can seem like a prison. Friendships that were once free, kind, fun and real become cruel, complicated, empty and heavy. All of a sudden reasons for not liking, and even hating, other people appear like new mountains. Color of skin issues arise. We find trouble outside and inside ourselves. It's like being chin deep in an endless pond, where you must keep your head up and not allow the water to seep into your nose and mouth.
                But at some point in most of our journeys, we want to redeem or restore ourselves. Each of us must explore and restore our own inner heart and soul. Rehabilitation is always self-rehabilitation. My journey led me to Judith and her poetry class. I could have gone on serving this life sentence in silence, longing only for the deeper silence of a raindrop falling gently to earth, but Judith saved me from that fate. She helped introduce me to the voice inside me, wanting to come out. I learned how to poet and write mainly because Judith believed in me and trusted me, even in my silence. This is very important for teaching artists to understand: because Judith knew how to listen, the silent language of the soul gave my pen wings.
                Yes, at first, I saw Judith as the good looking, splendidly weird woman coming into San Quentin. But after awhile, I saw the person, the poet, the teaching artist, the human, the brilliant light – a brave woman who came into our dungeon class room to teach poetry. A woman who became my mentor, my friend, and my big sis. I found out that I could share a relationship with a woman not based on sex, but on a deep, powerful, soulful, and enlightening friendship that can last lifetimes.

                Despite the fact that Judith is a small, Jewish, white woman, and I am a sturdy black man over six feet tall and a decade younger than she is, some people may think: Oh Judith must be another one of those goody two-shoes liberal white women rescuing an ignorant black man from sinking further into the abyss of San Quentin. In fact, though, we both understood that human beings must rescue themselves. Still we can be there for each other and believe in each other, as Judith believed in me and I believed in her. Because we shared our two different lives and backgrounds – putting ourselves out there, heart first – we enriched each other and forged a friendship based on realness, respect, art, trust, uncommon and common ground, and love. My weakness may have been her strengths and my strengths her weaknesses. Like wolves that know they are howling at the moon in common, Judith and I have always known that we have humanity in common. This truth led me to my undiscovered self, to a heart of bonding with Judith, to finding that I am a writer and to the realness that can mend or heal all things wrong or wounded.

Ani DiFranco composed music to a poem by Spoon with the same name as this essay.