Incarcerated for 24 years and out to bring humanity to an inhumane “justice” system.

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Photo provided by author

Indian activist Arundhati Roy once said:

“There is really no such thing as the voiceless… only the deliberately silenced or the preferably unheard.”

She’s right. People behind bars do have voices. But they are forcibly shut up and told no one wants to hear them. With their names replaced by numbers and stigmatized as criminals, it feels like being relegated to the dregs of humanity for eternity.

I know, because for the last 24 years, six months and 24 days of my life, I have lived among them.

My name is Robert Barton and at the age of 16, I was charged as an adult with first-degree murder and sentenced to 30 years to life. …

…is the direction you choose to take

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Some people come out of the storm better
Some people come out of the storm bitter
The difference between the bitter and the better
is the compass of your heart
and the direction you want to go.
(Ant Clemons’ opening words to Better Days, performed for the inauguration with Justin Timberlake)

I entered a cold “winter” when I left the D.C. jail and was sent back into the federal prison system. I’ve spent most my time on lockdown, unable to make phone calls (I am allowed to talk only to my lawyer). That gives me a lot of time to think. And rather than tell you more about the “gray” existence here (and, really, in all the federal prisons right now), that song has moved me to focus on my thankfulness for all I’ve gained by going through this adversity: patience (from being forced to sit and wait for hours on end, often in shackles), resilience (just by surviving the storm) and appreciation (for all the love and support of a growing circle of friends, supporters and loved ones). …

Which one you get depends on your class, race and ethnicity

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By Robert Barton

In my West Virginia penitentiary, I am allowed to receive a subscription to USA Today, although there are days when it is randomly held back for no apparent reason. I read with disgust that President Trump has once again thumbed his nose at the rule of law. As he uses his last few days in office to pardon war criminals, white-collar offenders of influence and cronies (and to rush to execute people like the emotionally abused Lisa Montgomery), I am once again reminded that in America, there are two, separate and unequal justice systems: the criminal justice system (for people of color, low incomes, etc.) …

It shapes you in ways large and small

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In the end, the cell is undefeated.
it stains everyone it touches
in its own unique way.

The cell molds you.
The cell scolds you.
More than likely, the cell
will fold you…
as it engulfs you in its
bearlike arms, squeezing
the life out of you.

The cell contracts and expands,
depending on your state of mind
and how you use it…
It abuses or enthuses you.

The cell talks to you
and sometimes you talk back. …

Solitary confinement is becoming standard operating procedure in federal prisons

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I paced the floor this morning, thinking. (I’m alone in my cell 24 hours a day, so have only my thoughts to occupy me — so much so that I’ve grown tired of thinking.) Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed rays of sun beaming through my window. Instinctively, I rushed over and jammed my face into the small sliver of space between the metal bars that divide my window. I haven’t been outside since March, besides getting on and off a bus in transit here. It felt so good! …

For Anthony “Pete” Petty, 2020 is both the best and worst year

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By Pam Bailey, with Pete Petty

Holidays in general are rather meaningless in prison, but New Year’s eve packs a particularly painful punch, says Anthony “Pete” Petty. “It’s like, ‘man, it’s another year that I’m here.’ For other people, it’s a fresh start. But for guys inside, it is…more of the same.”

Except this time. This will be the first new year Pete will “ring in” from the free world in 30 years. What excites him the most as he looks forward?

“The unknown. The fact that I don’t know what the new year holds,” smiles Pete. “In prison, I knew exactly what each day would be like, for the next year and the year after that. I had a routine, and I did the same thing over and over, over and over. …

Holidays are robbed of meaning in prison

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Illustration by Aaron Maron for The Atlantic: “As the U.S. heads toward the winter, the country is going round in circles.” But prison is a never-ending circle.

These are days when people in the free world are enjoying or looking forward to the holidays — whether it be Hanukkah, Christmas or Kwanzaa. Even a pandemic can’t totally take that away; it has just reshaped it a little. And then there is the new year, one that promises such a fresh start, with a COVID vaccine coming and the departure of Trump (finally!) But for us in prison? Holidays are just another day.

That’s especially true for the holiday this year, with COVID-induced lockdowns meaning we pretty much get nothing to eat but cold bologna and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. We aren’t allowed to receive holiday cards and even pictures are copied before we receive them, in drab black and white. (That’s why the Flikshop postcards some of you have been sending me are so very, very special. …

In prison, the food is so bad, inmates eat it only to live

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The coronavirus has made prison food even more gross (photo credit: The Marshall Project).

By Pam Bailey

For most people, a high point of the winter holidays — actually, of life in general — is food. Think about it: So much of the way we socialize, mark special occasions and even comfort ourselves is centered on food. There’s a reason why certain dishes are called “comfort food,” after all.

But in jail and prison, says Anthony “Pete” Petty, “we basically eat to live. The food is that bad, both in taste and nutrition.”

A number is not only your name but how far a guard has to shoot

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We feel as if we live in the sites of snipers

As I write this post, I am looking out the tiny window in my cell into the compound. And I notice all of these different numbers posted on the housing units: 65, 87, 140, etc. What do they stand for? Then, my eyes wander to the gun tower that sits in the middle of the yard and it dawns on me: The numbers denote the distance from the tower to our living areas (they would be better called cages, but we seek to give ourselves whatever humanity we can). They help the guards aim more precisely so they don’t miss when they shoot at us. Is this a prison or a shooting range? …

A look inside ‘Misery Mountain’

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From Pam Bailey, Rob’s editor/collaborator: In my last blog post, I reported that Rob had suddenly been moved out of his Virginia jail en route to the U.S. penitentiary in Florida where he had formerly been incarcerated. However, we’ve been rudely reminded once again of the Bureau of Prison’s arbitrary, secretive mode of operations. I check the online “inmate tracker” every day, seeking confirmation of Rob’s whereabouts. This week, he popped up in USP Hazelton — a notorious prison in West Virginia nicknamed Misery Mountain. We don’t yet know why he was moved there; he has not been allowed to call anyone. Our only communication so far is one, short, pencilled letter I received today. …


More Than Our Crimes

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

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