Ruminations on Incarceration (an excerpt)

Carlos Contreras has been twice recognized as a national champion performance poet. He works an educator, leading writing workshops in Albuquerque’s adult jail facility at the Gordon Bernell Charter School. For the complete version of this piece, please visit his blog.

The reflections that exist here are the thoughts of a career educator, poet, writer, and human being, a piece of humanity that searched and is most likely still searching for pieces of the same, somewhere, perhaps still in the same place – inside.

Command Call:

Razor blades, depending on the day,

mail, maybe,

a message from the captain,

perhaps the beds weren’t made in accordance to the accordion

of expectations, depending on the oversight

the desired level of diligence can eaaassily, be adjusted…


Command call,

An upright, out front, stand in front of your home

Line up situation,

Where you shut the fuck up,

and listen.

It doesn’t matter

what you think,

made obvious in the tone, manner, or message,

most days.

Hopefully not all,



Depending on the day.

Most days start the same.  I-40 West to a street with a changed name, for reasons I’ve yet to ask, and could care less about in regards to where it leads me, either way it leads, to nowhere.  Westside Albuquerque, mesa deserted of hope, or ambition, the perfect place to dump three thousand people that everyone else can feel content about forgetting.  Those that remember, send money, make phone calls, bring bibles, or pamphlets, children, or worries; those that matter still to the ones barred from society, sit on the other side of telephones and cameras, the booths for viewing, a blast from the past, nobody talks on pay phones anymore – well, almost nobody.  The lack of contact in most supermax, or supermax-modeled facilities these days, is predicated, dependent, prided on sterility, impenetrability, the ability to keep out the contraband, physical or otherwise.  The detachment from heartstrings seemingly easier when the phone cords and video screens become not enough, for young or expectant mothers finding less and less gas money to drive out onto West I-40, to a road with a name twice changed.  It is easier to forget mothers, out on mesas, instead of at tables, at bedsides, at baseball games, or 1st grade graduations, when seeing them is almost like a video game, with less excitement.   Reality is twisted by visits in not only the jails to which I’ve played witness, but most every other – and don’t get me wrong, or misunderstand me, I am not pointing fingers simply reflecting on a reality, that is not virtual, instead very, very, real.

The analogies cut

Better than shaves bought by commissary.

than pencil tip to neck

soft flesh.

Stranded, broken, street lamps

in empty lots,

the sign nobody sees,

if bodies fall behind bars

do we hear them?

Those born, with stifled cries,

are taken from the arms of mothers, returning to the unit

to strap on a smile for jolly rancher glazed

congratulations! Cards, and questions about baby

toes, and middle names…

A population caught in the middle

That is recognized most on the feminine side

of incarceration;

the children.

Collateral damage in a deal gone wrong

a life not bargained for

bartered or abandoned in the night,

now offered out to the wolves of streets

that bear those, lamps.


“Lights out!”  I wonder often about what goes through the mind of the first time offender, when the lights go off.  I can tell you to a certain degree the thoughts of more than one sunset, or rise, witnessed on the wrong side of cinderblocks and bars – but that is simple, silly, and minute, in comparison to even a 3 ta’ 5, as one might say.  I wonder… What happens in the thoughts, in the wrestling with sheets, and eyelids, to not be the first to sleep.  What is the reaction to the sounds, and scratches at the sheets, by the air, the wind, the noise nobody can stop, when everything is metal and stone – at what point does one at least mouth the words, or give birth to the wish of wanting to go home.  What is the “fresh fish” experience like, and although, I cannot say, I’ve been there; I like to think in writing things like these I can attest to having seen it.  I’ve witnessed the gloss of fear and unpredictability killing that not so curious cat, deer in the headlights, wanderer on the pod, or stuck in a corner – I’ve seen it.  I feel for those, no matter the offense, who have to realize the situation served cold.

Yours isn’t yours anymore

May be, his.

Or his,

Or theirs,

If they want it,

and you have to decide

how Bad you want to

Keep it,

because in here

All can be lost,


In an instant.

For instance…

“I like your shoes…”

it’s him or you,

whose giving what up,

and the first time you do,

life becomes like a broken


broken bones,

and bruises.

So, builders are made

of most men.

Concrete and rebar

biceps and chest


Hardened hearts and

Idle hands.


Short circuitry isolated

and ready to be live wired.

Safety pins and bars of

soap help tell stories written

In blood,



Steel and concrete.

Rib cages hold

Lyric sheets,

stories untold

Single simple notes 

Of sad songs turned to stone.

Heart beats

On a shelf



dormitory living

shared showers

three hots and a cot

a battle of will

with becoming

something you’re not.




Dead Man Walking…

They all have a name,

A badge of honor

or otherwise…

A lot can be said without even

talking, it’s all in the eyes.

or what’s underneath.

Tattooed teardrops


it ain’t even really about hate…

Better defined as


Gladiator schools…

           “Get in the car,”

Or get left behind

Steady rollin…

Leave a Reply