Chronicling Thoughts: Alexandria Inmates Awarded For Creative Writing

And you've just got to read this new poem by Hashim Barner.

(Left to right) Creative writing winners Hashim Barner, Josh Mann, Nicholas De Luca, and Michael Pixley with Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne. (Photo: James Cullum)

Alexandria, VA – Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Oscar Wilde. Some of the world’s best writers have spent time behind bars. On Thursday, Aug. 22, the best writers at the William G. Truesdale Adult Detention Center were recognized for their outstanding contributions. The work was insightful, honest, and thought provoking. 

“I like to write at night, usually,” said 26-year-old Hashim Barner, who won first place for an untitled poem. “I write in black pen in composition notebooks. It felt good. I haven’t written anything since I was in high school.”  

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Hashim Barner reads his untitled poem. (Photo: James Cullum)

Mary Wadland, the publisher of The Zebra Press, judged the second annual creative writing competition, and congratulated the writers on their work. The Zebra also provided an undisclosed sum of prize money – doubled from last year – which went into the winners’ commissary accounts. 

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The annual event was organized by Jane Hess Collins, the founding director of Heard, a two-year-old nonprofit dedicated to fostering creativity for the homeless, domestic violence survivors, and the incarcerated. 

The judges of the creative writing contest included The Zebra’s Mary Wadland (Center). (Photo: James Cuilum)

“We work with adults who may not always be heard,” Collins said. “Everybody has a right to get their word out.” 

The other judges were Alexandria’s Poet Laureate KaNikki Jakarta and Michael Long.  

“It was real good, good news that we got involved with this contest,” Wadland told the writers. “And it was great news for me to be able to be a judge and to be able to read all of your work. It was all thoughtful, and it was hard to choose.” 

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Alexandria Sheriff Dana Lawhorne congratulated the inmates on their abilities, and said that deciphering one’s thoughts onto the page is not easy. 

“It’s a reflection of your thoughts and it’s a reflection of you,” Lawhorne told the inmates. “Thoughts are very valuable. People want to know what you think. You have good thoughts and people should hear them.”  

Fiction: 

First Place: Michael Pixley 

Second Place: Brendan Henderson

Non-fiction: 

First Place: Nicholas DeLuca 

Second Place: Joshua Mann

Poetry: 

First Place: Hashim Barner 

The Zebra is pleased to present the following work:

Untitled
By Hasim Barner

Success is what I’m after,
But I’m stuck in the path of
Darkness and Silence only allowed to
move backwards,
and hear the demons chatter and
the devil’s laughter,
as he chants “I got you bastard” 

In the land of evil, guess I was given
life to live backwards,
how ironic because evil does spell live
backwards.

Imprisoned in the realm of my conscience where nothing matters,
I guess it’s consequence from the actions of my feelings and thoughts Battling,
the truth hurts but anything otherwise
could be quite baffling.
Don’t bite into the forbidden fruit, though
the thought fruitful.  

We were taught not to play in those pastures,
I don’t know what’s safer home or the
Church’s chapel,
We were all born sinners but expected to
listen to the words of a pastor,
I’m quite Baffled. 

I’m just a product of my environment,
But labeled a habitual hazard that
Stems from pure hatred and habit.
How can I focus on the future
If I’m stuck in the past tense, 

They say you can speak things
into existence but what about
the things that you imaging,
none tragic but those types of things
are meant to happen,
how tragic.

Destined for failure once the tone of
flesh was blackened,
boxed inside the earth’s core in a
casket or caged in a 16 by 4 seems
to be the only pattern.

Bliss
By Nicholas DeLuca

Not too distant from here exist two cities wrapped in an unfortunate duality. Both were prosperous in their own rights, but the foundation of each prosperity could not differ more. In both cities, the population differs only in lifestyle; each citizen has just as much opportunity as the next. For those lifestyles, however, this could not seem further from the case.

In the city of Bliss, the citizens could not look happier though they try. From the outside of their houses, one would assume Bliss was a resort for the rich and powerful. The path to each door is lined with flowers that beg to be smelled, though they have nothing to offer. The windows are maliciously tinted by a door with an excess of locks. Though the intricate designs and floral arrangements differ equally, the windows and doors are identical as if required by law. The businesses are equally as opulent as the residential area though surprisingly the windows are the main attraction. The shelves are empty and the aisles are rarely traveled but the windows are lined with the most up to date products of every variety though their authenticity and customer satisfaction is not guaranteed. 

The citizens of Bliss are things of wonder in and of themselves. Much like the rest of Bliss, from looks alone you’d think each citizen was as wise and well off as the next. Just like the businesses and homes, the citizens lack any foundation to support their façade. In conversation, one would be none the wiser as the citizens of Bliss seem to have endless knowledge and affirmation for their beliefs. In a single conversation they can flip and flop from one stance to another in a desperate attempt to avoid dissonance. Every life in Bliss seems lie a desperate attempt to please others, but with no foundational commitment to personal values every life is a fight to avoid facing the true self. 

Downwind from Bliss lies a small decrepit town that exists in a stark contrast. In this town everything is presented exactly as it exists. Depending on the needs of the inhabitants, the houses are small with enough rooms to meet one’s needs without excess. The houses have modest gardens that boast both fragrance and substance despite lacking visual appeal. From the functional streets you can see through the windows and observe lives with purpose. 

Main Street hosts a variety of unique businesses that meet the needs fully of the town. The shopkeepers offer welcoming doors and are eager to learn the name of anyone who enters and find out how they may assist them. As eager as they may be to assist, they’re equally as happy to let one know they cannot help and point them in the appropriate direction for a business that can. 

This in nature is the ultimate difference from Bliss. While the city has a sole focus of ego maintenance, this exiled town’s focus is one of understanding and knowledge. That isn’t to say the town doesn’t see visitors from Bliss. Every citizen from Bliss will visit the town at least once a week in search of advice or assistance who they will swear by as if they discovered it themselves. The townspeople don’t mind as they were also once citizens of Bliss. That is how the village began; the more exposure one receives on the Beliefs of Bliss, the more reluctant they are to return. Then, once one has made their final departure, they actively strive to sustain life outside the morally destitute city.

It is crucial to note that living in either location has no bearing on one’s character. Equally as many good, innocent people life in Bliss as bad, corrupt people live in exile. The town’s separation is entirely based on how their pursuit of truth with no bearing on how they use it. 

After all, ignorance is Bliss.

The Glass Window 
By: Michael Pixley

That Glass Window! If it’s clear enough, you can find your reflection. Find out who truly are. Most windows are not that clean however. Smudges, smears, fingerprints and other additional obstructions can obscure what is seemingly definite on the other side. Me and the Glass Window are like friends and enemies. A gift and a curse. Heck, we are almost like a married couple. Sometimes I am happy to be in it’s presence, to get closer to it, identify with it and other times I dread what it does to me. It taunts me, mocks me yet soothes and consoles me all at once. 

More than anything else, it’s consistency reveals to me pure unadulterated truth. What a mystical concept…… I’ve noticed some people avoid it or confront it very little in their lives. They know it’s daunting power and decide that it is overwhelming or simply irrelevant. I, however, have realized that in order to grow mentally, I must alter my perception, take a seat and do what must be done. I have to look through that window. 

As I sit in my small space cut off from the rest of the world, I reminice two years back, when the world, my world, was a much bigger place. My little girls are sliding down the steps backwards, belly first, laughing at the the top of their little vocal cords. “DON’T YOU DARE DO THAT AGAIN before you and Ari hurt yourselves,” their mother yells. Aly rushes up the stairs quickly, followed aimlessly by Ariyah who doesn’t know any better or simply trumps fun over risk. 

The warning goes in one tiny ear and out of the other like a car with no brakes. As they both decide to defy good natured parenting and began the second round of “Fatal Stairs”, I stop them. “Listen to your mom Aly. You are five and need to be setting an example to your little sister. Be a leader,” I explain. “How about you get dressed and we go outside.” Her brown eyes squint and I can tell she wants to challenge me, but she quickly runs into her room, sister trailing close behind, laughing and screaming, “YOU CAN’T CATCH ME!” Outside, spite the sun sitting directly overhead like a spotlight on the lead stage actor, it feels just right. My two little ladies, my 2 year old in my arms while the other speed pedals on her bicycle down the block. They two caramel frappaccinos with deep brown pecan eyes and enough energy to fuel a small atv. I would say that they look like their mother but I’d be lying. Everyone believes I somehow defeated the natural mating system, pulled chromosomes from my DNA solely, placed them in a complex generating machine and viola, two mini-me’s created. But I am here to tell you, I definitely had their mother’s help. I divert back to present day. Back to me, these walls and of course, this Glass Window. As I look out of this window at an expanse open territory, I wonder where I fit in. I am a splash of paint on the world’s canvas. In order for me to make a difference, in order for there to be change, I must grasp the concept, that one step begins with me. When you are locked away from society, in order to truly reform, you must ask yourself……

Why? Why am I here? What have I done to deserve this? Where is my next destination? When will I realize this is not the way and lastly, who am I to become? I once heard on “Bruce Almighty” Morgan Freeman spoke to Jim Carry about his careless actions and stated, “It takes a boy to make a mess, but a man to clean it up.” The simplicity in that statement is truly complex in many ways. It did wonders to my intellect. For the longest time my windows in life were tinted, dirty, or covered with dark drapes that allowed no light in whatsoever. The world was simpler I felt. Nothing in nothing out. I was a prominent Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles except without glasses and the extraordinary fervent talent to play the piano. That at least would’ve changed my status of “splash of paint” to a “colorful collage of art” on the world’s canvas but No, a “splash of paint” I remained. It took blue and red lights, a badge, and a robe to open my shutters wide. For some it takes less, for others that is only an appetizer. For me, it was like being brought out of the womb again, in a room full of lights and promise, in hopes that you will soon be reconnecting with that familiar warmth, only this time you can now actually see. This window from where I sit on the fourth floor of this building offers an insightful frame of progress and rebuilding. The cars on the highway offer a steady stream of progression, even in congestion, as long as they are moving forward, there are no crashes. Homes represent, comfortability, being foundated, knowing oneself and finding a ground to establish a foothold. 

Alas the construction. Decomposing and building anew. Reforming, rehabilitation, and of course renewing oneself. This window shows me my deepest desires, yet it plays on my worst fears. Failure, rejection, and ultimately my weakness. I think back once again to my 5-year-old daughter being tucked in at night before going to sleep. As she sobs and begs for me to stay in her room with her, I whisper, “Listen love, I got you something.”  She gives me a weary look, her big eyes filled with tears and asks, “what is it Daddy?” “I got you a night light that will keep you safe from all of monsters and will always protect you,” I say. I pull the white owl shaped glow light from behind my back and place it in her arms. She looks amazed but with a trembling voice she asks, “What is his name?” “That is the thing baby” I began “He needs you to name him and hold him close, what do you think will be a good fit?” “Blessy!” she says excitedly. 

“Blessy…… I like it.” I say, “you and Blessy rest easy and don’t keep him too close to your eyes sweetheart.” Goodnight Aly, goodnight Blessy.” I kiss her forehead and as I head for the door, she asks, “Daddy, do you know why I named him Blessy?”  “No sweetheart, “Why’s that,” I counter back. “Because God is protecting me at night and this owl is like an angel. A blessing. He’s my Blessy,” she says. My eyes tear up as I suddenly realize a five year old just taught me what faith truly means. 

As I find myself aware that I am in my cell, back to reality, I prepare for my encounter with The Glass Window. I brush my teeth, put on my jumpsuit, straight the collar, and went patiently for this anticipated moment. As the visitation door pops open, my anxiety grows like a shadow does from the rising sun. Suddenly I see a familiar face, although this face is accompanied with many changes. She’s almost a foot taller, hair longer, slim and wearing a blue sundress with miniature flowers all over it. When she sees me, her face lights up like the 4th of July Fireworks on a starry night and my heart instantly skips a beat. She’s beautiful to say the least. I pick up the phone and dial in my pin. She picks up on the other side of the glass window. After about 10 seconds, her voice booms through the receiver, “Daddy, I miss you!” She’s seven now and I cannot believe that it’s been two years since I last tucked her in at night. We speak about school, her favorite shows, her amazing friends, her brother and sister and many other new and exciting things that I’ve missed. She is like a pouring waterfall that’s never ending. I gaze at her wonderful toothless grin and laugh. She is blooming beautifully and my heart aches to hold her. That Glass Window is in my way. Blocking me from physical connection, us as humans desire wholeheartedly. I want to break it, run to her, promise I will be home soon, kiss her bubbly cheeks, but I know the repercussions. That glass window gives me a peak into freedom. An appetizer; bird food to a tiger which is ultimately no real satisfaction. It is just enough to tease into wanting more. I focus on her eyes, her personality, and her new attitude. My baby has grown up into a little young lady. At this precise moment I know what my aspirations are. I understand that this window has shown me what I from gaining if I continue down a destructive path. This is my revelation, walking through Dante’s Inferno in search of retribution. I approach my metaphorical glass window with Windex and determination and begin to wipe away the doubt, the fears, the debris that has blocked my view from seeing what is truly important. As the visit ends and my daughter begins to leave, she rushes back and places her head on the Glass Window. I do the same. I feel perplexed, electrified and accelerated as our souls connect. We say our “I love yous” and goodbyes and at that very moment, I know we will be okay.

Inspired by and dedicated to my three children. Aliyana, Ariyanh, and Alijah Pixley. I strive to be a better for them daily and pray I return to them soon.