From Da Bronx to D.M.V.

Jeffrey Melendez

 Third place, Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility writing contest, August 2021

I can still hear Da Bronx and smell the Bronx. It’s his own world. Very different very unique very alive in spirit, in culture. All different types of races, ethnics, different flags hanging from windows, Puerto Rican, Nigerian, Cuban, Dominican, Jamaican, Ethiopian. We all from different countries but we stick together here in America, here in the Bronx. If we can make it in New York City, we can make it anywhere. I’m proud that I was born there.  I still hear police sirens, honking horns in morning traffic different languages Chinese Swahili Spanish.

I hear car alarms going off and ambulance too. People screaming inside the Yankees stadium. I hear Mr. Softee ice cream truck. I can’t forget I hear the A, B and D train. Music playing through thru windows speakers blaring Salsa, Rap, Merengue, Reggae, Hip-Hop, Soka, Bachata, Danie Hull. The fire hydrant popped because it’s hot that’s all. White man pull-up in the white vans, asking for papers. Pops working late to put food on the table.

You see me I ain’t have the same luxuries I have 2 grandmothers in different countries. I’m a first generation born American I can’t say I’m going to grandmoms today she 2,000 miles away.  In the Bronx I can hear families argue about eviction notice. From High Bridge, Kings Bridge, 3rd Ave. Big Brother telling Little Brother don’t be a loser be a winner.

Moms going to a corrupt church the pastor is the biggest sinner. Moms cooking food, gun shots go-off her son ain’t coming home for dinner. In the corner smells of delicious Jamaican food, curry chicken, coco bread, and beef patties and in the other corner Giovannis Italian Pizza up the block, the Chinese spot. Down the block Dominican restaurant fry plantain with everything delicious. Never mind that half the buildings are rat and roach infested, Black and Brown around here we got Big money invested. We unite U.N.I.T.Y Latinos, African Americans, East Africans, West Africans. We all learn from each other different foods, dances, languages.

This is the Bronx. We are stars. On the rooftops we look up we don’t see stars. We see Police Helicopters and the Goodyear Blimp above the New York Yankees stadium. Shout out my Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans, Hondurans, Haitians, Dominicans, Nigerians, Trinidadians, Asian, and Italians. The good men doing time in Rikers Island. People taking meds in the Asylum. My young youth in the street wilding. No matter where I go I represent where I’m from (The Bronx) I’m from DA B.X.

Out of my Dispair


Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Facility/OAR writing contest, August 2021

I am

I am human

I am a citizen

I am not the criminal conviction

I am….


It is with premise that I sought a way out of my dispair. A dispair due to the fact that I and many others were sidelined during the 2020 United States Presidential election because of incarceration. So, on November 3,2020 and the days immediately afterwards, an idea was spawned to create non-profit organization with the focused pledge to aid all eligible formally incarcerated citizens returning to their community exercise their democratic right to vote. This pledge would be achieved, in part, through advocacy, voter education, and voter registration.


The organization would be branded/named:  The Returning Citizen Initiative ©

                        – We’re home, we’re voting – ©

A 501(c) non-profit dedicated to the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizen returning to their community.


What follows is a considered snapshot of the content to be included in the formal business plan for the establishment of The Returning Citizen Initiative.


Let us concisely place this unique form of the disenfranchisement of ex-felons (the “invisible punishment”) in a historical context.

                        “[T]he slave went free, stood a

                        brief moment in the sun; then moved

                        back again towards slavery.”

                                                                                    W.E.B. DuBois

                                                                                    Black Reconstruction America


In Michelle Alexander’s landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, she opens with a penetrating introduction to Jarvious Cotton:

“Jarvious Cotton cannot vote.  Like his father, grandfather, great-great grandfather, and great-great-great grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy…the freedom for those who will make the rules and laws that govern one’s life…His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy test.  Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like many in the United States has been labeled a felon…”


During the previous generations of the Cotton family, there were historical periods referred to as the Reconstruction Era (1863-1877) and the Jim Crow era (1877-1945).  Blacks went from a time where a host of federal civil rights laws protecting the recently freed slaves were passed including the Fifteenth Amendment.  This change to the U.S. Constitution provided that the right to vote must not be withheld on account of race.  Then came Jim Crow (a racial caste system).  It was at the beginning of Jim Crow that the criminal justice system was used to force Blacks back into a system of repression and control, a tactic that would continue for decades to come.


The National Book Award winner, Stamped from the Beginning: The definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, by the Harvard University facility member, Ibram X. Kendi, artfully details how the “Jim Crow Codes” denied Blacks the right to vote through various devices including felon disenfranchisement laws.


“Blacks were disproportionally charged with felonies – in fact, some crimes were specifically defined as felonies with the objective of eliminating Blacks from the electorate – felon disenfranchisement laws effectively suppressed the Black vote as well.”


Now fast forward to the 1983 Drug Reform Act; the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, 2013 Supreme Court ruling on the 1965 Voting Rights Act; the “Big Lie,” and the current sweeping voter suppression efforts underway in several state legislatures.  With this historical backdrop, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s onramp onto the stage to join with those voices crying to front the returning citizen the right to vote will be a starting point.


Aside from the required process of launching a new 501(c) non-profit organization, the mission of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to ensure the voting rights of the formally incarcerated citizens to their community through advocacy – voter education and voter registration. The vision of The Returning Citizen Initiative is to be a nimble; data-drive, and best practices organization effecting legislation and policy, first on a state level and then on a national level to the benefit of the formally incarcerated. Thereby, creating an opportunity for our brothers and sisters, who have “paid their dues; did their time” to enjoy the dignity, self-confidence, and purpose that participating in the political process – as a full citizen – can endow.


As we approach this important work, we will partner with like mind organizations and policy generators to fill any needs gaps. Armed with a plan, persuasiveness, and persistence, The Returning Citizen Initiative’s initial political lobbying will involve approaching the Virginia State Assembly to pass legislation allowing for the voting by convicted felons while still incarcerated in jail/prison.


On a final note, The Returning Citizen Initiative was born out of dispair. However, I have the unyielding hope that this organization will have an impact on bringing overdue solutions to the issues of the formally incarcerated citizens fully participating in their right to vote – to have their…”moment in the sun.”

The Day That Changed My Life

The Day That Changed My Life

Imilsis Velazquez

Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Center writing contest, August 2019

            I didn’t know it then but at that exact time fifteen hundred miles away at her home in San Francisco, California, my mother would be fighting for her life. The cancer that had invaded her body had spread to her brain and had hijacked her blood cells.

It wasn’t a day but a night. The night that changed my life was the night cancer murdered my mother. It was 3:33 a.m. on Tuesday morning, May 3rd, 2003. I’ve heard it said that’s the devil’s witching hour. I was awakened suddenly from a deep slumber to find my heart pounding like a drum in rhythm against my chest. I awoke sweating profusely feeling like my head wanted to split open. Then I saw her at the foot of my bed, looking at me with the same loving kindness I’d known all my life. I began to cry silently as I looked into her eyes. I understood then and there that she was gone to me forever. Cancer reigned victorious once more.

“My child why do you cry for me?”

I couldn’t answer her. I knew if I opened my mouth I’d lose myself in a storm of tears. And so she continued, “I’ve come here to help you understand, baby girl, that instead of sadness it is joy that you should embrace because I have returned home. My body shall be buried but my spirit is eternal.”

“Please know that it is important for you to accept all experience in this life as part of God’s great plan. I have completed my mission, my purpose in this life and I will see you once more in heaven. Having you was part of my purpose but your life is your own. It is meant for you to learn and to grow in spirit. You need to take all the seemingly negative things/experiences that happen to you and try to overcome their effects. You need to not only forgive your enemies but love them, thereby nullifying any bad influence they may have on you. You must let go of the past, change your heart, forgive yourself and then move onward. You must never give up! If you fall a million times, you must get up a million and one. This is how you grow. This is your purpose, to love and to grow.”

By this time she’d moved closer to me and enveloped me in her embrace, in her light, in her love. Suddenly my body felt as though it had been shocked with a defibrillator: once, twice, then a third time. I opened my eyes and sat rigidly upright on my bed gasping for air. My cell phone was ringing on the night stand next to my bed. I picked it up and answered, “Hello?” It was my father.

“Hi, Lily, honey. I’m sorry to wake you at this time.” I knew before the words slipped from his tongue.

“Your mother passed away.”

Mass Incarceration

Mass Incarceration
Semhar Gerensie Teclay
Nonfiction, Heard/Arlington County Detention Center writing contest, August 2019

Arlington, Virginia, 1435 North Courthouse Rd., 7 a.m. Shift change shift change stand at your doors full uniforms on with wrist bands shown at your doors, shift change shift change stand at your doors, what you are about to witness is Mass Incarceration.

My mornings start at 4 a.m. with triage with a diabetic glucose check and then medication. At 4:30 a.m. I’m headed to the kitchen to start my day off working as the prep man. It’s a job that keeps my mind off things I can’t control. I get paid six dollars a week which is terrible but I get to eat what I want if you know what I mean. In order to work in the kitchen at the jail, you must be low or medium custody level; any violent crime will eliminate your chance to work. The things I see in the kitchen you wouldn’t believe, for example stealing, sending kites throughout the jail including females, selling onions, green peppers and sugar, everyone has a hustle including me. Around 6 a.m. trays are delivered through the whole jail one hour before shift change. Once the jail is fed the kitchen crew gets to eat. As we sit in the break room inmates pull out all the hidden goodies making sure staff or cameras don’t lead on. All the inmates come together and break bread, whatever I need you might have and whatever I have you might need. In the background all you hear is, yo who got some cheese while another says who got the onions let me get a little bit. Then it’s quiet as we eat together and forget where we are for about 15 minutes then it’s back to work.

At 7 a.m. the whole jail is locked down as the deputies are changing shifts. Inmates are locked in their cells as the deputy makes his or her rounds to check status of the inmates. For those who’ve never been in jail let me explain, stand at your door with your armband showing inmate number 1231417 and if you don’t you suffer the consequences. To me that’s nothing. I’ve been in ten different jails my whole life, give me a radio and some books and I’m out of your way. I feel bad for the guys here for the first time waiting for sentencing not knowing the seriousness of their case, expecting to go home in less than a month. Fear starts to penetrate into their heart to a point where they are desperate asking fellow inmates for legal help and advice, reason is their public defender won’t contact them til the Day of Judgement, can you blame them? I won’t. I’ve been there before.

From 9 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. it’s recreation time. This is when and how you determine the type of inmate you come across. First you got the inmates that are on the rec yard lifting weights doing their exercise routine, these folks got their time and is what we call Bidd’in. Then you have the folks at the tables with their paperwork laid out preparing their strategies to present in court, either for sentencing or filing a motion for reconsideration. Then you have those people lying all day long about their material possessions on the outside that are worth nothing on the inside, those folks we call crash dummies. Private investors call them investments.

12 p.m. it’s chow time, we gather at tables and eat cold cuts and potato chips. Later on in the day we start our programs to better ourselves. That’s what they tell you; see most of the jails don’t even have programs anymore, they don’t have the funds to keep a program going, it’s all a front. The prison industry to me is the new holocaust without the gas chambers, people of all kinds, I mean good people, screaming for help, waiting for the super power as if it was America saving Germany during WWI.

It’s 4 in the evening dinner time last meal of the day also known as another day gone. Most of us inmates like to watch a movie or write a letter to a friend or lover, or read the paper. A simple phone call to our family with a cup of coffee preventing bad thoughts or feelings to linger in our minds. Playing card or board games with a friend that you’ve done time with. For me reading the Bible seeking new wisdom keeps me calm at night. 11:30 p.m. lockdown, just sitting here preparing this paper to educate people on what goes on in America’s prison systems. Not all of us are bad, I happened to make a mistake and did some jail time, then I was put on probation and I’ve been stuck ever since.

I’ve Weathered Some Ferocious Storms, and Noticed that the Most Extraordinary and Peaceful Sunsets seemed to Follow the Worst Ones

I’ve Weathered Some Ferocious Storms, and Noticed that the Most Extraordinary and Peaceful Sunsets seemed to Follow the Worst Ones

Victor Oben Ebai Jr., Arlington County Detention Facility

I’ve weathered some ferocious storms, and noticed that the most extraordinary and peaceful sunsets seemed to follow the worst ones. Though life can be diabolically treacherous at times in these vitally truculent moments in our lives solidifies and enhances our faith, strength, aptitude to endure pain, builds character, enhances our resiliency to obtain more patience and a reassuring understanding that ultimately God is in control. How can you show somebody the best way if you’ve never been through the worst way. Life has taught me that we don’t necessarily need to be the best, we just have to be good enough and strive for better.

Forty-six chromosomes make up our genetic code which pertain both dominant and recessive alleles. As our genes have to proliferate, mutate, dexterously finding ways to fight diseases, infections and be self-sufficient in rebuilding our immune system. We also must be subsidiary in our lives to find new and innovative ways to survive, evolve, mature gain wisdom and adjust to detrimental occurrences throughout life.

In direct correlation with God’s preeminent purpose to my opening statement that “the most extraordinary and peaceful sunsets seemed to follow the worst ones”. I quote from Proverbs 3 verses 13 through 18. “Happy is a man who finds wisdom and the man who gains understanding”. 14 “For her proceeds are better than profits of silver and her gain than fine gold”. 15 “She is more precious than rubies, and all the things you may desire cannot compare with her”. 16 “Length of days is in her right hand, in her left hand riches and honor”. 17 “Her way are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace”. 18 “She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her and happy are all who retain her”.