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Survive & Thrive

Being new to the corrections system, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I was certainly concerned with my safety in this harrowing environment, and decided on a twofold approach: first, survive, by any and all means necessary; second, to endeavor to thrive in this confined space. These two tasks were easier said than done. Little did I know I would be able to do both by making the right intellectual connection.

My first week here saw me sitting down with pen and paper, writing daily at every chance I could get. Being a screenwriter in the regular world, I thought the best way to thrive was to write, to do something I would do if I was a free man, to do the thing I’ll do when I’m released from here, whether by a successful appeal, early parole, or at the end of my sentence, which ever comes first.

Josh quickly noticed me writing daily and made me approach. He didn’t introduce himself, rather he just quickly started asking questions about my work. He was very cordial and equally curious. Caution, being the key to safety and survival, made me reveal as little as possible until I could find out more about my inquisitor. “Just writing an outline for a screenplay and doing some other creative writing,” I told him casually. His eye brows raised and a graceful smile crossed his face. “Oh really? Is that something you just started doing, or…?” he asked, continuing his gentle inquisition. “No, no. I have a history with it. I used to write on the outsie.”

This was not the first time someone had asked me about my constant writing, so I gave him my canned responses. However, he didn’t stop there, where most of the other inmates did. “What’s it about, your screenplay?” “This one is about a couple brothers who ride motorcycles and some of their adventures. I thought it would just be a film, but it’s turning into a series at this point,” I revealed, Josh’s smile and genuine interest made me comfortable to go on. “But this isn’t the only thing I’m working on. I’m working on a coming of age story as well.”

“That’s awesome. I’m actually trying to write something myself.” “Yea eh, what about?” Now it’s my turn to dig a little. “A book. About me. About my life and how I got here,” Josh shared. He paused, intuiting my next question. “How long have been in?” I ask cautiously. Inquiring into someone’s crimes or history is something that has to be approached with some delicacy, and typically, some familiarity. Until you get to know someone you usually don’t ask questions like that, and with some people you just never do. Sometimes you just wait until the information is volunteered.

“Since I was 18,” he responded without hesitation. My eyebrows raised a touch as my jaw dropped slightly. At this point, and even now, it’s hard for me to fathom a life in prison, given that I have had the opportunity to live such a full life before arriving here. It almost makes me feel guilty. “But it’s not a crime story, it’s about some dumb gang-banging shit, well, at least not entirely. It’s more about my life with family and my moms.” He pauses once again, this time to gauge my reaction to “moms.”

“Really? Then you might like the other screenplay I’m working on.” I looked at him for another moment, deciding whether I should reveal this new relevant detail. His look was still welcoming, still engaged. “One of the main characters in my other script is a lesbian.” He’s the only inmate I had shared that with. Revealing any support or sympathy for the LGBT community while in prison could have detrimental effects on my safety, or so I believed at the time.

Ever since I was young I was always against bigotry and hatred, regardless of who it was towards; a result of being tormented for having brown skin in a predominantly white school system. I’ve been a long time supporter of the LGBT community, and Josh quickly recognized that. “Yea, my moms were both shot dead because they were lesbians.” The smile had left his face, yet his eyes remained gentle and genuine. My eyes on the other hand had popped wide open, eyebrows raised as high as they could go, my chin having dropped a few inches leaving my mouth agape. Josh goes on to tell me some more details of his life and the life of his mother.

After some conversation he asked me if I’d be interested in ghostwriting the book with him, as he needs some help with it. I’m not quite ready to commit to anything, so I asked him more details about the project – about his life. By the end of his cursory overview of the events of his life he inquires again if it would be something I’d ghostwrite for him. “No, I don’t think I could ghostwrite that. But how do you feel about having a co-author?” I asked.

Josh’s smile returns and his eyes light up. He suggests we review all his material and then I should decide if it’s something I’d truly like to invest my time and skill on. I reviewed a few folders of information, and after reading many of the details of this tremendous, shocking, and societally revealing life story, I was ready to commit. It is now four weeks later and we have dedicated substantial time and energy into the project. We are now deep into the unique details of Josh’s life. As we move through the years of his life we are learning more and more as once hidden memories resurface and incredible correlations are discovered.

It is our earnest hope and belief that the project will be complete in the coming months. I hope to bring a clear voice, clear understanding, and clear message to the project. A message of hope and despair, love and loss, tragedy and triumph. As for me, I’ve managed to thrive with this project. And since it’s now widely known around here that I’m working with Josh on this project, his years of earning the respect of others in this environment has helped me evade running into any real issues with anyone, and I’m thankfully surviving. Stay tuned for more updates on the progress of this incredible endeavor. -Saj Qureshi

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