Trenton Doyle Hancock, “When They Found Me I Wasn’t There, Version #2” (2016), acrylic and mixed media on canvas, 72 x 72 inches (image courtesy James Cohan and the artist)

Los Padrinos Juvenile Detention Center, Unit Y2 

Each week
I walk through metal
Detectors // laughing guards
Muffled mothers

A basketball court // a black-
Bird // barbed wire

& More
Barbed wire.

To be here
Where the concrete ends
& Page begins.

I teach poetry to incarcerated
Boys [ages 15-19]. They

Are sons // & fathers // & brothers // & lovers
& thieves

[Just like me]
They want to learn

How to write
How to take the pain & make it beautiful.

When class begins

Televisions are turned
Off. The chessboards are
Put away.

Put Away.
& The boys join me // by the stain-
Less steel lunch table

In the back of this grey
Brick room.

Everyone looks the same

Cotton sweatpants // sweaters sharpied with

Most heads are shaved // some are

I want to ask the boys about their lives
[Outside of the detention center]

But every story ends with
The word prison.

“My mother… prison.”
“My father… prison.”
“My skin tone… prison.”
“My language… prison.”
“My nation… prison.”
“My gender… prison.”
“My ratty cloths…”

[Will be returned upon release].

Part II

Julian calls me Carnal now.

He spent the first couple weeks of
Our poetry class trying to scare me


He would lift up his shirt
Showing me
The name of his gang.

The names of his dead friends
[Etched in ink across his stomach].

I would tell him to
Put his shirt down

[But I would want him to keep his shirt up].

Julian told me // he wasn’t afraid of

All I could think about was his abs.

None of the boys in Unit Y2 know
I’m a faggot.

Before each class // I’d wash
The red paint off my nails

Exchange my black dress
For blue jeans.

Here // each body is disciplined for its difference.
Each person is disciplined for their distance

[To state power].


I was reading a letter, written
By Dee Dee

A trans woman
Sentenced sixty years to life

[In a men’s prison]

For killing
Her abusive boyfriend.

Dee Dee [now]

To be raped & physically assaulted
Behind bars.

She will not fight back

She has been transferred
From prison

To prison to prison
To prison to prison
To prison to prison
To prison to prison
To prison to prison
To prison.

She has been placed in solitary
Confinement [against her will].

For her protection?

She spends twenty-three hours
A day alone.

On hunger strike
She was sent to the hospital.

When each act of resistance
Is labeled as aggression

When you can’t even scream in pain
[Without being pathologized].

Wouldn’t you
Starve yourself too?

Pull each rib
From its ribcage.

[Anything to open the prison doors].

Part III

In Unit Y2
Julian is finally released.

He is let out of
The detention center

On probation // with an
Ankle monitor.

This monitor
Will track his every move.

This monitor was created in the 1960s at
Harvard University by a small group of researchers

R. Kirkland Schwitzgebel
& His twin brother

Robert Schwitzgebel]

As part of
Some project that I don’t really care to
Write about.

Last week
I heard on the news

The Federal Government

Is going to start
Using these
[Ankle monitors] to

Track the movements of
Undocumented Immigrants.


Fleeing poverty & violence
With their children.

Who are awaiting trial
& Sometimes

Like my tios // like my primas

Like Julian’s family

I want to congratulate Julian
On his release

From Unit Y2

But I feel uncomfortable

Proposing the thought

That he is now free

That he is now human
[Or citizen].

I want to tell Julian

Everything has changed
But there is still institutionalized

Against convicts

[In access to housing // education // & employment].

Prison is the new slavery.
Prison is the new Jim Crow.

Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.
Nothing has changed.

No // Julian. You are not free.

They just rearranged
The boundaries of your cage.

Part IV

How did we end up here?

Licking our claws
Walking in circles

With no water bowl
Of course we look like animals

[Of course we run from poachers].

In 1906
Ota Benga was put on exhibit

In the Bronx Zoo.

In 1896
One hundred Sioux people
Were put on exhibit

[In the Cincinnati Zoo].

There is
A whole

Of African & Native
Bodies being displayed
In human zoos.

The first time
I was arrested
& displayed

[I was only fifteen].

A whole neighborhood watched
As I was stuffed into the backseat
Of a police car.

Wearing nothing
But my underwear

[A cloth which hung like a white flag]
A beckoning to surrender.

I was placed
In handcuffs.

& All of the faces
In that neighborhood

Looked            [like security cameras].

Capturing just one instance
In the scene.

The brown boy
The police car
The tow-truck.

When I was arrested

For stealing my father’s car
[& Running away]
From an abusive household

Nobody saw the fear
Nobody paid attention to

My father’s chaffed hands.

The way his grip tore
Through my clothes.

Nobody wanted to talk about
The circumstances
Which created the “criminal.”

The prison isn’t just a holding cell.
The prison is any place

Where fear is profited on.

Part V

I never wanted to be
A criminal.

This isn’t what I had planned for.

A life of opposition, of resistance.

Where every day, I wake to

[Threats & self-defense].

How badly // I want to leave.
Open all the cellar doors.

Let the brown boys free
Like wedding doves.

Erase the names engraved
In the bullet proof glass.

[Spit the teeth out
Lodged in my esophagus].

The image I see
Is not one of violence but I understand
The trembling.

The image I see is a simple one

Where our fears are let go of
& our empathy is held onto

& Julian is laying down

On a couch in his mother’s living room

Watching cartoons // after eating cereal.

[It’s a lazy Sunday morning]
& Julian’s sister is still asleep.

The blankets are pulled

Over her shoulders.

Sun tilting through cotton


She yawns & stretches. She does
[Whatever she wants to do].

& Nobody wakes her

Not Julian, not the police.

*   *   *

Christopher Soto, aka Loma (b. 1991, Los Angeles), is a poet and prison abolitionist based in Brooklyn, New York. For more information visit christophersoto-poet.com.

Readers are encouraged to submit 3–5 poems as a PDF to Wendy Xu for consideration at poetry@hyperallergic.com.

Wendy Xu

Wendy Xu is the author of the poetry collections Phrasis (Fence, 2017), winner of the 2016 Ottoline Prize, and You Are Not Dead (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2013). The recipient...