Prisoner Writing


The Cab Ride

Jesse Cummings

Twenty years ago, I drove a cab for a living. One night I took a fare at 2:30 A.M. When I arrived to collect, the building was dark except for a single light in a ground floor window.

Under these circumstances, many drivers would just honk once, but I had seen too many impoverished people who depended on taxis as their only means of transportation. Unless a situation smelled of danger, I always went to the door. The passenger might be someone who needs my assistance, I reasoned to myself.

So I walked to the door and knocked. “Just a minute,” answered a frail, elderly voice. I could hear something being dragged across the floor. After a long pause, the door opened. A small woman in her 80s stood before me. She was wearing a print dress and a pillbox hat with a veil pinned on it, like somebody out of a 1940s movie.

By her side was a small nylon suitcase. The apartment looked as if no one had lived in it for years. All the furniture was covered with sheets. There were no clocks on the walls, no knickknacks or utensils on the counters. In the corner was a cardboard box with photos and glassware.

“Would you carry my bag out to the car?” she said. I took the suitcase to the cab and then returned to assist the woman.

She took my arm and we walked slowly toward the curb. She kept thanking me for my kindness. “It’s nothing,” I told her. “I just try to treat my passengers the way I would want my mother treated.”

“Oh, you’re such a good boy,” she said. When we got in the cab, she gave me an address, and then asked, “Could you drive through downtown?”

“It’s not the shortest way,” I answered quickly.

“Oh, I don’t mind,” she said. “I’m in no hurry. I’m on my way to a hospice.”

I looked in the rear-view mirror. Her eyes were glistening. “I don’t have any family left,” she continued. “The doctor says I don’t have very long.”

I quietly reached over and shut off the meter. “What route would you like to take?” I asked.

For the next two hours, we drove through the city. She showed me the building where she had once worked as an elevator operator. We drove through the neighborhood where she and her husband had lived when they were newlyweds. She had me pull up in front of a furniture warehouse that had once been a ballroom where she had gone dancing as a girl. Sometimes she’d ask me to slow in front of a particular building or corner and would sit staring into the darkness, saying nothing.

As the first hint of sun was creasing the horizon, she suddenly said, “I’m tired. Let’s go now.”

We drove to the address she had given me. It was a low building, like a small convalescent home, and the driveway passed under a portico. Two orderlies came out to the cab as soon as we pulled up. They were solicitous and intent, watching her every move. They must have been expecting her.

I opened the trunk and took the small suitcase to the door. The woman was already seated in a wheelchair.

“How much do I owe you?” she asked, reaching to her purse.

“Nothing,” I said.

“You have to make a living,” she answered.

Almost without thinking, I bent over and gave her a hug. She held onto me tightly. “You gave an old woman a little moment of joy,” she said. “Thank you.”

I squeezed her hand and then walked into the dim morning light. Behind me a door shut. It was the sound of the closing of a life.

I didn’t pick up any more passengers that shift. I drove aimlessly, lost in thought. For the rest of the day, I could hardly talk. What if that woman had gotten an angry driver, or one who was impatient to end his shift? What if I had refused to take the run, or had honked once and then driven away? On a quick review, I don’t think that I have done anything more important in my life. We’re conditioned to think that our lives revolve around great moments, but great moments often catch us unaware-beautifully wrapped in what others may consider a small one.

People may not remember exactly what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you make them feel. 


Concrete and Iron City

David A. Smith N-90738

Concrete and iron city

What an awesome sight,

From outside it looks peaceful

Inside there’s nothing but fright.


Men housed in cages

Stacked row upon row,

The despair, hopelessness and fear

From outside who would know.


It’s a battle from within

Waged from dawn to dawn,

To overcome the feelings

Of a life gone wrong.


Segregated, Denigrated,

Deprecated and worse,

Time’s more than your sentence

It’s been your lifelong curse.


Always struggling within yourself

To make it day to day,

To maintain a shred of sanity

To help you along the way.


But the way is fraught with dangers

Of the most fearsome kind,

Self-destructive behavior

Products of a diseased mind.


The world outside moves on

Without giving any thought,

The diseases most suffer

Are ones society has wrought.


It’s easier just not to care

Than to take responsibility,

It’s easier to simply say:

“Lock ’em up, throw away the key.”


But that is not the answer

To this problem that we face,

A problem with no boundaries

of religion, class or race.


Instead we need solutions

To heal the sickness in our land.

To help restore the dignity

Of this fallen man.


Help him understand the man

God intended him to be,

Lift him up, make him realize

His noble destiny.


Now the time is growing short

And something must be done,

A faithful voice must be heard

Question is: “Will yours be one?”


For My Brothers and Sisters Who Have Suffered Isolation


Scribbled on the wall, pain reduces us

to brothers. Here in the labyrinth

there are only crusts of bread, and scraps

of paper. The only tongue we know

is the prisoner’s scream. The oddest

language gets caught in the catacombs

and these vaults become our tombs.

Once inside, nothing gets out. No notes,

No words, only our blood recognizes

that our hearts are doomed, our flesh

will succumb to degradation, and the mind

will numb. We get two gulps of terror

for dinner and they skin us for lunch.

In this gray hell even the light burns black.



Sandra Brown R35900, Lincoln Correctional Center


Oh. My mercy-lacking taxpayers,

Authors of the law,

Every hardship is imposed on the unflawless

All for you.


Concrete Jungles keep “them” away from smiling houses

Surrounded by picketed fences—

Away from friendly Black Labradors

Barking bouncing

Like Mexican Jumpingbeans,

Away from fresh cut sun-kissed emerald-green lawn;

Greener than the sum totals

Of your not flawed nine to fives.


Concrete Jungles keep those not named God

From coloring your rainbows

A thousand shades of gray.

Hearts hardened by dry, compassionless consciences

Erect infinite coffins above ground

Sealing sick and tired blemishes.


Sick call calls the sick, but no collect.

Walking blemishes,

Squeezed, scratched and scabbed;

Ointment no longer works.


Walking blemished fade bust,

Oozing onto the emerald lawns;

By the picketed fences;

Next to the smiling houses,

Saturating subsidized sums,

Denied your own nine to fives,

Taxing your taxes


All for you. 


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