Christopher Blackwell, forty-one, is a Washington state imprisoned writer who previously worked in prison as a chicken farmer. Jamie Beth Cohen, forty-six, is a writer who is not incarcerated. She lives in suburban Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; Although she doesn’t call herself a “soccer mom,” her children do play soccer. The two were paired in 2020 through a program called Empowerment Avenue (EA), which supports incarcerated artists and writers.
Since their pairing, which was EA’s pilot game, Chris has published more than fifty articles, ranging from fully featured articles to highly personal essays, in outlets large and small, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Boston Globe, The progressiveand other.
The following is an email exchange between Chris and Jamie about their partnership. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Jamie: I can’t believe we’ve been working together for more than two years. Because you’re inside and I’m outside, time passes differently for us.
Sometimes that strikes me as odd. For example, when we’re talking and I ask how your week was, and I’m like, ‘How do you think his week was? He is in prison during a deadly pandemic, separated from all his loved ones.”
CHRIS: I don’t know if others feel weird when people in the free world ask about their week, but I love it when you do. When you share the drama of your children’s lives. When you open up about these things, it reminds me of how close we’ve become. Yes, we work together, but we are also close friends.
On a recent call I told you that if I get fired [my wife] Chelsea and I will pay for a trip to a cool place like Disneyland for you and your family. You laughed and said, “Oh, then the kids will really love Uncle Chris.” I didn’t tell you at the time, but I started to cry. In that moment I could see how close we really are. You are an incredible parent and very protective of your children, so having you say that — including me as a member of your family — has done more for me than you might ever know.
I am in prison for taking someone’s life and sometimes I wonder if people will ever see the real me or if I will be doomed to a life of judgment forever. But in moments like these, I’m reminded that I am more than the damage I’ve done. And that doesn’t absolve me of this horrible act, but it does let me breathe freely and know I have support in the work I’m doing, which hopefully will keep others from causing the same kind of harm I did.
Some pieces we released were difficult to digest. Like when you shared the “Letter To My Teen Self” that you wrote when your first book came out. You encouraged me to write a similar article. I thought why not? It should be easy. I had no idea what the piece would open up in me and it was far from easy. It forced me to open doors I had sealed decades ago. When I finished, I read it to my wife over the phone with tears streaming down my face.
I had been carrying around some really traumatic things, but without your guidance and encouragement I never would have written what has probably been one of the most rewarding contributions of my career – not because I won an award, but because I grew, learned more about myself myself and received dozens of messages on Twitter from others that may have something to do with my traumatic childhood. This was one of the pivotal moments in my writing career; a light went on and I realized that my stories could help others process their trauma.
But being with me, someone incarcerated for such a violent crime, couldn’t have been easy to overcome.
Jamie: I don’t know if I had a hard time letting you in, but maybe that says more about my porous boundaries than anything else. Part of the reason we were EA’s first couple is because you had prior writing experience and I had prison, prison and crime experience.
What I don’t think EA knew, but I remember telling you, is that my father was a criminal who was never caught. His many crimes included identity theft, and I was one of his victims. Working with you is a continuation of my relationship with my father who died in 2005. I firmly believe that there are no good and bad people, only good and bad decisions. You both made choices that I think are bad, but I don’t think that makes either of you bad people.
Another thing I remember was how my privilege protected me from the consequences of some of my bad decisions. And how, despite the fact that you’re white, growing up in an underserved neighborhood with a high crime rate really affected the way the system treated you and affected your choices.
On that first call, I told you I’d been stopped for speeding three times, once with weed in my car in my early 20s, and I’ve never had a ticket. As a white girl driving a Jetta with a college sticker, the police thought I was a “good person.”
My friends were concerned about my budding friendship with someone who is in prison for taking someone’s life. The way I see it, you’re not a threat to me or anyone because you’re not the same person who chose to carry a gun in a robbery all those years ago. I explained this to my friends and they read your really moving articles. Now they are more interested in the mechanics of our work.
For example, my friends know that it’s expensive to call someone in prison, but they didn’t know that we have to pay to email each other, or that some people in prison don’t even have access to email or similar have internet. There’s a lot about friendship with someone incarcerated that many people don’t understand or even consider. If more people did this, there could be a stronger movement to alleviate the conditions in prison that you and others constantly face.
The same goes for prison writers. Many of my friends are novelists and write personal essays like me. We are not used to being fact checked. I know you’re working on more reported articles these days, but most major outlets even fact-check your personal essays to ensure the Department of Corrections (DOC) can weigh their version of events. How does that feel?
CHRIS: It’s not easy to know that your oppressor has the ability to mistake the damage he’s inflicting on you for lies, as he’s actively putting you in a bad light. It is ridiculous. If you were to ask an abusive parent if they hit their child – after the child accused them of doing so – would we as a society believe the parent when they say the child is lying? Or would we be skeptical and let them prove that the child was lying and that they, an accused abuser, are not only protecting their own interests?
A light went on and I realized that my stories could help others process their trauma.
With inmates, many outsiders seem to expect that everything we say or do should be treated with caution. “Of course they lie about everything. Seems only right since they made a mistake that got them into prison in the first place.” In reality, however, prisoners grow, mature and develop like all human beings. Everyone makes mistakes in their life, some get caught, some don’t. Ultimately, our mistakes should not condemn us forever.
It is important that our voices are not suppressed or overlooked and face false accusations from the very people who continue to abuse us. If I’m being strictly fact checked by the publishers and have to prove every part of my claims to the DOC, then the DOC should have the same standard. At the end of the day, it’s about reporting the truth, ensuring that those who experience abuse are supported and that those who cause harm are held accountable. If not, the cycle continues.
It brings us to a place where imprisoned voices are heard and respected—a place where we aren’t treated as if we’re fortunate that publishers let us speak our truth, but instead recognize our right to do so. Because that’s what journalism is all about – researching and reporting the truth to better educate society about the dysfunctional systems that operate in the shadows.