A Youth Offender’s Travelog: Sight Seeing through California’s Carceral State from San Quentin to Valley State Prison

By Ghostwrite Mike & The Mundo Press

CHOWCHILLA, CA – As a young Black man imprisoned in California, it has been easy for Skrybe to feel marginalized, disenfranchised and dehumanized. Prison will take it all if you allow it.

At only 25, trend lines suggest a third of his life is already over. But around here in varying degrees, reclamation seems to be everyone’s north star. It is not about clawing back the lost parts of a cleaved life for Skrybe but, rather, “chasing a self-built future version with brave possibility.”

Skrybe’s mother died while serving this term, with him describing, “Profound grief, the heavy weight of my life’s failures, and a sucking vacuum of purpose ganged up on my hope reservoir, leaving me alone with a quiet inner despair.”

Watching men die from Covid complications made more deadly by the standard of overpopulation, he reported how North Block at San Quentin slowly suffocated his sensibilities.

Skrybe also described how the murder of George Floyd and Eric Garner “left me with an overwhelming sense of dread that loomed over me and everyone that looked like me.”

“It was intoxicating to allow the raw anger in, and equally heavy to have to carry the loss of my mother as well. It was an overwhelming period for me that really informed my cultural perspective,” he added.

To pursue moments of escapism from his incarceration, Skrybe uses music and literature, but finds himself returning to the raw feelings of loss, noting, “Pen and paper became accomplices in my elaborate thoughts of the crime enterprise. Poetry and I became curious ‘frienemies’ as I wrestled with angst while walking laps with Spoon Jackson.”

“I’d watched guys like Ryan Moser, Adamu Chen and Than Tran write and produce content for podcasts and film projects thinking to myself that I too had something to say about our lived experience.”

An encounter with Rahsaan “New York” Thomas resulted in the publication of his poem ‘My Black Conscience’ in Apogee Foundation’s Anthology, Inside Out.

“For once, my words mattered,” he said.

The State’s Youth Offender Program (YOP) – a term we loathe and deem as pernicious as inmate, prisoner, convict and felon – compelled young Skrybe to be uprooted from Quentin where he was moved to Valley State Prison (VSP). This transition removed him from the creative community that had embraced him.

“I hated being pulled from the prospect of doing work with the Ear Hustle, Uncuffed and the San Quentin News media platforms there, only to become shoved into a mentor/mentee pilot program at VSP that didn’t have mentors that looked like me or could relate to my lived experience,” he complained.

Though he didn’t feel a cultural continuity at VSP when he first arrived, Skrybe applied himself, absorbed the YOP curriculum and was invited to appear on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) Unlocked podcast to discuss the curriculum with the CDCR’s Chief of Strategic Communications and External Affairs, Krissi Khokhobashvili.

He reflected on how he tipped his cap “to the moving parts of the apparatus that deserved it, and presented (his) authentic self,” noting, “Again, my words mattered.”

Skrybe has gone on to earn an AA degree from Coastline College, published the poem “Badge” with the Prison Journalism Project and co-facilitates the Barz Behind Bars (B³) Creative Writing Spoken Word Performance Art Workshop, a resident-led creative arts experience at VSP that uses selections from the Freedom Reads curated libraries positioned throughout the facility.

In early 2023, he got to meet one of his heroes, Reginald Dwayne Betts, the founder of Freedom Reads as he presented his own poetry to Betts in person. Betts told us how he was looking forward to hearing more of Skrybe’s work.

When he graduated from the YOP curriculum, Skrybe performed a poem at his graduation ceremony. It was the first time anybody at VSP had centered his art.

That day brought film producer and criminal justice reform advocate Scott Budnick into Skrybe’s vortex, a man he said “need not have made time for me, but did. When we met, we ‘clowned’ about the pronunciation of my government name, Torrey, which he got right on the first try.

“Having that interaction with someone like Scott, (while being incarcerated) was satisfying, because it was effortlessly humane and normal. It made me think about what I might do with my life when the door opens for me.”

Having lost friends and opportunities when they snatched him from San Quentin, Skrybe gained artistic purpose while facilitating the B³ workshop.

With Common’s Rebirth Of Sound music program starting at VSP, Skrybe told us he is “poised to create meaningful content, stating, “I want to write poetry, narrative and creative nonfiction. I’m chasing a BA in English, and will be hunting an MFA when I parole.”

Everyone pines over what we lose when we go inside, but few elaborate on what we gain while there. For Skrybe, it’s about “making my mother proud of her son.”

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