Growing Up in Prison

Growing Up in Prison

March 7, 2022 | Nick Browning

A portrait of Nick Browning and the Pen America logo

Coming to prison as a 15-year-old has obviously shaped me in innumerable ways. I’ve known nothing but institutions from adolescence on and have now spent 14 years in such places. Next year I will have spent literally half my life in one prison or another.

However, given the enormity of my crime, my fate is very much deserved. I took the lives of those closest to me, my own family, and there is nothing I can do to change that horrifying truth. No amount of good works can ever balance out my ledger.

Writing “Little Gardens” was an attempt to articulate all that I’ve felt and thought over the last decade and a half. As with most things in life, there are no easy answers. Other than, perhaps, the simple fact that I should spend the rest of my life in prison, forgotten and alone. When I contemplate how much pain and loss I’ve caused, it’s hard to argue that any other fate is a just one.

Writing and reading have kept me sane over the years. The inanities of prison are certainly enough to overwhelm, and being able to escape into a good book is invaluable. I love nothing more than spending a quiet afternoon in my cell, working my way through a thick novel or a probing non-fiction title. Inasmuch as I have any writing ability, it has been lifted from others. To quote the old literary cliché: good writers borrow, great ones steal. I lack the temerity to class myself in either category, but I think the general sentiment is a valid one.

I am grateful to Evident Change for recognizing my writing. Prison can be a lonely place, and knowing we are not forgotten is liberating. It makes it possible to continue trying to make something meaningful out of the implosion of our old lives. Success is far from certain, but perhaps the attempt is itself valuable.

As I said, I have no illusions that I can ever make up for my crime. It will always remain an immutable fact of my life, and that is as it should be. However, I do intend to do what I can to improve the lives of those around me. I am conspicuously talentless with anything other than a pen, and so I play to my strengths. I hope that by writing I can add my small perspective to the broader criminal justice conversation.

It should not be a prominent one, but simply another voice in a chorus of inmates describing our daily existence. I know many in here who would make exemplary citizens if they were given that chance. Many of them have faced the consequences of their crimes with true remorse, and they are ready to rejoin society. If my writing helps to humanize my fellow inmates in even the slightest way, I will consider my efforts to have been well worth it.

Nick Browning received the 2021 Media for a Just Society Award in the Media by a Person Who Is Incarcerated category. His essay, “Little Gardens,” was published by Pen America, and received first place in the essay category of their Prison Writing Contest. 

Evident Change works to make the youth justice system more just and equitable. Learn more on our Youth Justice page.