Pen Hustle

Brothers in Pen has been featured in a podcast!

There is a wonderful organization in Skagit County, Washington, called Underground Writing, a “literature-based creative writing program serving migrant, incarcerated, recovery, and other at-risk communities in northern Washington through literacy and personal transformation.  Underground Writing facilitates generative readings of literature spanning the tradition—from ancient texts to those written in our workshops.   Honoring the transforming power of the word, we believe that attentive reading leads to attentive writing, and that attentive writing has the power to assist in the restoration of communities, the imagination, and individual lives.”

Last March, the good folks of Underground Writing, Matt Malyon and Alvin Shim, interviewed me about Brothers in Pen. The podcast, entitled “Community Spotlight: Zoe Mullery & Brothers in Pen,” was aired on April 22, and it’s taken me exactly a month to get the word out on this blog. Fortunately, Brothers in Pen doesn’t get old, so listen at your leisure.

On the same day, I read some short excerpts from various pieces from the class, and that recording of me reading those excerpts was released as a separate audiozine. You can hear those here. The following excerpts were selected (note: these are not complete stories but excerpts from stories):

In other Underground Writing news, they invited Brothers in Pen writers to write letters of encouragement and advice to young men and women who are entering juvie, with the idea of including the letters in a kind of hope packet for them as they find themselves in a difficult place. It was a wonderful assignment and many heartfelt letters were written. When UW completes the project, I’ll share from those letters—they were beautiful.

Thanks to Matt and Alvin for creating this bridge between Brothers in Pen and Underground Writing.  I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Zoe, Matt, Alvin

Alvin Shim and Matt Malyon of Underground Writing, making Zoe squint with the radiance of their sincerity


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Making Us Proud

Adnan ReStore JusticeA few months ago I wrote about former Brother in Pen Adnan Khan being the first person to be released under the new law SB1437, which changes the felony murder rule. Adnan has a story in our most recent anthology, Pens Up, Don’t Shoot. Today, I saw this post: Adnan has just been named the Co-Executive Director of Re:Store Justice, an organization founded in 2017 working in partnership with incarcerated people, survivors of crime, district attorneys, and the community. The organization offers such things as victim-offender dialogues, transformative justice classes in prison, Days of Healing for those impacted by violence, legal representation, advocacy, re-entry work, and more.

Thanks, Adnan, for making us proud and giving your time and energy to serving others with your many gifts! And you look really sharp in that suit.

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Hobnobbing with the stars

Kenny Brydon sent this photo of him and his old pal Joyce Carol Oates at a reading at City Lights Bookstore. Joyce Carol Oates was the editor of Prison Noir (clutched in Kenny’s hand), a collection of prison stories which included a story by Kenny.

Kenny and joyce

A couple of nights later, Kenny and I were both at City Lights for a reading of a good friend of Brothers in Pen, Keith Scribner, who gave a reading from his new novel Old Newgate Road. I’m already well into my collector’s item autographed copy and I’m hooked…Keith Kenny Zoe

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John Brown’s Body lives on

Screen Shot 2019-02-16 at 6.08.44 PMIn 2002, director Joe De Francisco produced a single performance of the play John Brown’s Body at San Quentin, after nearly three years of rehearsals under extremely difficult conditions. The performance entered legend status. (I am sad to say that I heard about the performance at the time and had no idea what a powerful and historic moment I could have experienced firsthand. I still regret it.) In 2013, Joe released the moving documentary John Brown’s Body at San Quentin Prison to much acclaim. He has now made available for free the film of the entire original performance. Both the documentary about the play and the play itself are so worth watching. You can find both on his website along with a study guide.

Four out of the nine cast members are alums of the creative writing class: J.B. Wells, Larry Miller, Ronin Holmes, and Noble Butler. JB and Noble were both present at our first Brothers in Pen Reunion last October. Ronin, I hear, is at Solano where he continues to perform Shakespeare and, I hope, write stories, and I’d love to hear from Larry Miller again, who had poetry in our very first anthology. Larry?

John Browns Body guys

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“The restorative power of creative writing: Incarcerated people find healing through the written word”

This is the lovely article that was written about our Annual Public Reading in October, and published in the San Quentin News

Inmates captivated a San Quentin audience of more than 100 on Oct. 20 in the Catholic chapel. They told stories inspired by their childhood, life in prison, dreams and nightmares.

  • Brothers in Pen creative writing group           (photo: Peter Merts)

More than 20 inmates read the stories they had written with the encouragement of instructor Zoe Mullery.“Writing—that’s what saved me in prison,” said Joe Camacho, a former prisoner and alumnus of the writing program called Brothers in Pen. “It became a survival skill to take the stress away and to not think about where I was at.”

“Writing—that’s what saved me in prison. Four years ago, Zoe promised to make me famous,” said inmate author James R. Metters Jr. before reading Pops, a story about his absentee father. “Today, I feel famous.”

“I don’t feel like their instructor,” said Mullery. “I consider myself a real member of the group.

“I’ve learned so much from everybody’s stories about what it means to be human.”

For the first time in the event’s 12-year history, formerly incarcerated alumni returned to San Quentin to listen to their fellow writers at the event. Included were Camacho, Carl Irons, Watani Stiner and J.B. Wells.

“When I first started writing, I was angry at the government, angry at myself— just angry,” Stiner recalled. “I wanted to tell my story and set the historical record straight.

“I’ll never forget Zoe’s annoying little comments on my work. Who is this White girl telling me how to write my story? But what she was doing was helping me to pull back the layers of my story.”

“This is my third year at this event, and each year my heart is healed even deeper,” said Tammy Appling-Cabading, marketing and communications director for St. Mary’s College. “I continue to learn, continue to grow.”

“What an amazing adventure today has been,” said retired teacher Mary Prophet, who worked with Education Not Incarceration. She directed her questions about criminal justice reform toward Charles Daron and his harrowing account of violent retaliation from Corcoran corrections officers in the ’90s.

“Restorative justice has to take place in an individual,” Daron reflected, “and only when that individual is ready.”

“I try and focus on the solutions,” added inmate author Charles “Talib” Brooks, who first learned to read and write in prison and has since achieved a GED.

“It’s really fabulous—getting to interact with you guys and listen to your stories,” observed Alice Morison. She explained that her great-grandfather, Josiah Parker Ames, had been a warden at SQ in the 1880s. “Especially to see this prison evolve from a penal colony model to a rehabby model.”

The outside guests were particularly interested in understanding what drives these men to write.

“When I write, I fly; I’m out of here,” Richie Morris explained. “I’m in a place where I know I’m finding healing.”

“I remember a letter my grandson wrote to me,” shared Alex Briggs, who held the child as an infant 24 years ago before starting his incarceration. “He said he only knows me through my stories.”

“Coming in here has always been difficult for me in many ways,” Stiner said. “I spent 26 years total in prison, and I see men I’ve walked the yard with.

“For me to be out and knowing that these men are in here is hard. I know that they would serve society better out there.”

“I’ve been inspired by a lot of the men I’ve met in prison,” said prisoner Kevin D. Sawyer. “When I write, I try and have an underlying political message, because I want people to think.”

“People in here are every bit as smart as any random cross-section of the outside population,” said Carol Newburg, project manager for SQ’s Prison Arts Projects. “The experience of coming in and talking to people here— there’s nothing else quite like it.”

“How many times do you have the opportunity to visit with inmates at a prison like this, known worldwide?” asked Mike Mullery, Zoe’s father, who came with her whole family. “When she asked us to come, we were all totally ready.”

Complete anthologies of current and past events are available at


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Emile’s Freedom Isn’t Even New Anymore

emileI have been slow in reporting on the excellent reality of Emile DeWeaver’s gigantic freedom. Jerry Brown commuted his sentence from 67 years to the 20 he’d already served. He has been out since I think September. I saw him. It’s really true. He is thriving and smiling that big Emile smile. Why didn’t I take a photo? I stole this one off the internet, a place where you can find many things about Emile. You’ll have to take my word for it. Emile is DeWeavering the world so nimbly and magnificently.

Soon I will interview him for this blog and get some Emile reflections straight from the man himself. Meanwhile, he wrote about his commutation with typical DeWeaver eloquence, so I will let him speak for himself.

Redemption is not just for me

Gov. Jerry Brown commuted my sentence in December from 67 years to life to 20 years to life — a rare act of mercy. I had imagined the effects of a commutation on my life; the commutation’s effect on incarcerated people at San Quentin State Prison, though, surprised me. The night of my commutation, men cheered in their cells like the 49ers had just won the Super Bowl. It felt fantastic to hear men call out to me with joy, but I also recognized that they weren’t cheering for me. They were applauding something much more important than me.

That “something” is difficult to convey, as it showed up in emotions more than in concrete events. In their questions, I heard a thousand times: Emile, why do you take so many self-help classes? Why are you always reading? Who are you trying to impress? These questions didn’t come from everyone; but when they came, they felt loaded with judgment.

I felt like people wanted to tear me down.

I was wrong, people hadn’t wanted to tear me down. Their concerns were analogous to those of Denzel Washington’s character in the film “Fences.” He degraded his son’s sports dreams in a misguided attempt to protect his son from disappointment. Listening to them cheering for my commutation, I realized that what I’d taken as judgment was fear for me. My questioners had anticipated my “inevitable disappointment” and wanted to protect me, in their imperfect way.

Now they cheered, because they’d been wrong. And they’d never been happier to be wrong.

“They don’t give that kind of stuff to people like us, you know?” one man told me. “That kind of stuff is only for other people.” He had a thunderstruck look that reminded me of my own arrival at San Quentin. I met dozens of free people (volunteers in the prison) who wanted me to succeed — which wasn’t consistent with my internal narrative about a society that wanted me to fail. I’d found a community that wanted me, and I had never admitted to myself how desperately I wanted that. It proved an epiphany in my rehabilitation.

Six years later, I witnessed a similar moment of realization by the man who thought commutations were only for white people or rich people. His narrative, common in prison, about an “entire system” arrayed against him, was cracking.

A father spoke to a room of incarcerated journalists who work on the prison newspaper and radio news program about the effects of my commutation on him. “Before Emile, I wasn’t doing anything,” he said. “I didn’t care … I was never going home. Now, I’m going to do something.”

His sentiment isn’t isolated; I’ve watched it spread from man to man all month. I’m at the middle of how Gov. Brown’s act of mercy fuels exponential change. People who said they “didn’t care” are admitting to themselves that they both want to care and can be restorative members of their communities. They’re energized to transform their lives; and their transformations can change the lives around them, just as my transformation ripples through the world around me.

Media coverage billed me as “a more obvious choice” for clemency and a model of rehabilitation. I’m humbled. And I respectfully offer that in 20 years I learned to be this man from a lot of worthy men who don’t have my writing skills and so don’t have my visibility. Hundreds of them will file for a commutation this year. Imagine the power to spread transformation in a hundred acts of mercy.


(This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle on Feb. 1, 2018.) 

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Adnan and SB1437

Adnan Khan F55145

Adnan Khan, 2014 • photo by Peter Merts

I was just reading the morning paper with my toast and coffee when I turned a page and saw some truly good news. Former Brother in Pen Adnan Khan is the first person to be released under the new law SB1437, which changes the felony murder rule. Adnan had been convicted of murder because while committing a robbery, one of his accomplices committed murder, which automatically gave Adnan a murder conviction as well. Now the law has been changed so that a murder conviction can only be given for the person who actually committed the murder or a person who intended to murder or helped the murderer.

Apparently, Adnan’s case was the inspiration for the new law, and now he has been the first recipient! He was released on Friday. Joy and more joy! Adnan had a story in our latest anthology, Pens Up, Don’t Shoot, called “Saturday Morning.”

You can read more about it in the article I was reading with my toast and coffee:


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