Our Voices > Walk in Our Shoes

Poetry Set Me Free

Nov 10, 2023

The perspective of

Sanquan Carter

Incarcerated at

USP Canaan
in Pennsylvania

Year incarcerated


Home State


We can go through our whole life without knowing we were traumatized or how to speak up to get the help we need. 

Not knowing or understanding my trauma affected me in ways I’m only now starting to understand. I went from being on the honor roll and scoring the highest on the SAT in the ninth grade to being held back the next year for “behavior problems.”  It was a shocking change, and I realize now, looking back, that the trauma I experienced when my uncle was shot and killed affected me in ways I didn’t know how to express. So, it came out as anger. I was hurting and I didn’t know how to deal with it any other way. 

But there was one silver lining: During my delayed year, I was introduced to writing as a form of expression. My teacher assigned us to write in our journal every day. Today, I understand that I was healing my mind, body and soul in those journals. My teacher told me I had a gift and that I should share it with the world. 

Once I went on to the next grade, I somehow lost that love. Fortunately, I found it again when I began to get into trouble for not controlling my anger and was incarcerated as a juvenile. At Oak Hill Youth Detention Center [later closed due to a class action lawsuit], it was a lawyer who helped me rediscover writing. I’ll forever be grateful to her for pushing me to express myself with pen and paper. Until then, I didn’t know I could use my pen as a sort of weapon. I learned that instead of acting on how I feel, I can write it out. And for me, it comes out as poetry.

That realization wasn’t instant. I had to go through many trials first: losing both sets of grandparents and three little brothers, and watching my father fight cancer twice. He and my mother lost two sons to prison – one who has a life sentence and the other facing 54 years – while burying three others. Nevertheless, learn it I did: I had to free and heal myself from the pain that had become pervasive in my life. 

If Pain Could Speak

If pain can speak,
I’m losing my mind.
I think I need to see a shrink.
The weight on my shoulders
got me thinking.
I’m sinking,
feet in cement,
quicksand underneath….
I just pray to God he comes to save me.

Mama in pain; 
she just lost another seed.
Pops is back drinking
cause he tryna find relief.
I just filed a motion;
hope the courts free me.
Big brother’s dying inside;
this one cut ’em real deep.

Head above water,
devil tryna drown me.
Fighting with my demons
until my knuckles bleed.
Round after round
got me asleep on my feet,
walking in a daze;
red is all I see.

Voices in my head
asking for the old me.
Big bra, stay strong;
that’s what Nae* told me.
I’m just tired of losing;
Sis asking why me.

Violence is on my mind;
but if I kill I want to be free.
So I’m sucka ducking,
hoping one day I’ll be free.

54 yrs;
IRAA** got it down to two more.
Praying for some shit
that’s now my reality.
2025: I’ll be looking real sweet
Insha Allah I’ll be home
with the family.

If pain could speak,
this is what it would say for me.

* My little sister.
** DC’s Incarceration Reduction Amendment Act, which allows individuals who committed their crime before the age of 19 and have been incarcerated for at least 15 years to petition for release based on their rehabilitation.

Recently, as I read an essay written by another More Than Our Crimes member, Antonio Oesby, I realized that the suffering we think is ours alone is shared by so many others. I too was part of the Inside Out program (in which college students come into a prison to learn along with their incarcerated classmates) at the Hazelton penitentiary in West Virginia. After I graduated, I was accepted into the Inside Out think tank, where we came together to brainstorm how to make life better for prisoners, staff and the outside world. Unfortunately, I was later transferred to another prison. But I still believe in the morals and principles we shared in the think tank. I try to help anyone I can so they don’t have to learn through the consequences caused by mistakes. Life has a way of giving you the consequences before the lesson.  

I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe.

Suffocating like from
Derek Chauvin’s knee. 
But I can’t allow life
to George Floyd me,
even after the government
tried to Bryonna Taylor me.
Standing tall after 54 years
that felt like 54 shots
from a racist cop’s Glock.

I now realize I’m traumatized
from childhood happenings
that I thought was the way
things were supposed to be….
Tough as leather,
potent as fentanyl,
loud as zah.*
Does the culture tell who we really are?
I bleed what you bleed
yet still you feel
you’re superior to me.

Cracka/nigga, please.
Life started in Africa,
so recognize there’s no you
without we.
King Tut, Nefertiti,
Assata Shakur, Muhammad Ali.
Just a few that DeSantis would love
to erase from history,
because slavery was “a choice.”
At least that’s what Kanye says.

I want to be great like Jay
and have a queen like Bey
because financial liberty
is the only way to be free.
Etch me in the history books
with Tupac, Maya Angelou,
Langston Hughes….
Because one day my poetry
will speak volumes too.

*Strong weed

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