A Thief and Murderer Afraid to Care, I Learned to Truly Understand What Life Is About

Just as lightning flashes and dances across the sky, so too, does this life I live. In a world away, a jungle so thick that everything touches you, a war not of my making, took my father and sister in a cloud of thundering smoke.

BOOM — POOF, gone forever. I was ducking and dodging bullets and bombs in a body not mine, my mother’s.

She cried to heaven above and unseen spirits all around: not for what death just took but for what was not taken. My mother gave birth to a baby before its time, knowing it would not survive.

True to her fears, I came roaring into this world to the drowning sound of silence. A stillborn baby, dead, cold and blue like the river that caressed me. My mother, seeing her plight, gave me up to this river. Took, not taken. As I was being carried away by its current.

My first act as a human being was theft. It was then I took life from Death. I opened my eyes to a billion falling tears of angels, demons and spirits alike, the pouring rain. My first breath, a sound of thunder, my mother swam after me. Took not taken.

Now safe in her arms, she whispered, “You are a constant pain and worry to me. I will call you Pheej,” a name meaning constantly in a language soon to be lost like its people.

Fated to be a thief in this life, so I chose to believe. Took not taken. Three years old, living in a camp of dirt, surrounded by barbed wires and machine gun towers. My home a house made of bamboo trees tied together. Near dying, from hunger and thirst, death came for what I stole.

“No,” I said. “This life I took cannot be taken.” Saved through a miracle and grace, away to America we went. At 7 years old, I grew bold from the loss of my innocence, torturous beatings. Took, not taken.

By 12 years old, I took a lot of pain, joined a criminal street gang. Tired of shame and in pain. Hunger for revenge, I grew cold. With no guidance nor values, not wanting to understand, I became a wicked being.

Sixteen years old, in and out of juvenile hall and the Youth Authority (youth prison), I embraced my destiny and pain. I gave life to a criminal street gang, and the streets is where I found myself drowning again, this time in a pool of my own blood. Five bullets to my body, death, my old friend, came calling again. Deja vu, it said. My vision static like an old TV, out of picture and focus, then silence. I awoke to the sounds of machines beeping, to the face of a crying angel, my mother.

Took, not taken. I’ve done things I’m too shamed to mention. A thief I truly was, not even my family was safe from me. How right she was, though I never listened. Those friends she warned me about led me straight to prison. By 17, I took two lives. Now, I was walking with a limp from the shackles and chains made of iron. “Guilty of murders,” said the jury. “Life in prison!” cried the judge.

Took not taken. To hell here I come, your newborn son. Twenty-three years later, still nothing’s changed for the better, only worse. Thirty-nine years old, a flash of blood pouring out from six holes in my chest, my body torn to shreds. Drowning yet again in a pool of my own blood. Finally, death and I are together at last, I said.

Took, not taken. Darkness, then light. A new voice echoed inside my mind. Rise, my son, and open your newborn eyes. I did. Once afraid to care, live and love. Thought it was cool being a thug. How foolish I was to ever believe my fate a THIEF! My destiny PAIN!

Truly I must have been insane. How could this be, I exclaimed! Suddenly, so simple, the answer came to me. After destroying and ruining countless lives, I have come to truly realize and understand. This life is a gift given to me, not theft.

Took, not taken. Now with meanings and purpose, a new flame ignited deep within me. Burning every ounce of my soul with a thirst and desire to raise people higher than even they can see or believe possible to achieve.

We all possess a beautiful mind, a heart filled with courage, a soul strengthened by compassion. Greatness awaits us all, accept it. Don’t follow your anger. Don’t give in to hate. Take your gift of life with the knowledge learned and build a life for the family that awaits your arrival.

The third time is a charm, so they say. I am here alive today to tell you it’s never too late. Took, not taken.

Pheng Ly was sentenced as an adult to 50 years to life at age 17 for two counts of gang-related first degree murder. Now 40, he is incarcerated at the Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California.

The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth, was founded by David Inocencio in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at

Speaking from the Grave

Well, we meet again, Mr. Webb, but this time it's under different circumstances. I'm speaking to you from the grave and you're in the penitentiary.

It all started on Jan. 10, 1989, at approximately 9:45 p.m. I was driving home from work. You, Mr. Webb, ran out in the middle of the intersection and pointed a gun directly at me. I stopped my truck and you opened up the driver side door, ordering me out of my truck. I was so terrified because the look you had in your eyes were dark and scary. I was hoping and praying that you wouldn't shoot and kill me. But as I began to drive away, my worse fear came true. You, Mr. Webb, fired one bullet from your gun and that bullet struck me in the left side and I bled to death.

The saddest and painful thing about it, Mr. Webb, was that I died alone in the streets and my family not knowing what happened to me. Mr. Webb, not only did I lose my life, but you lost your life to state prison and both of our families will be forever connected by a single bullet. Mr. Webb.

I have a question I’d like to ask you and I hope and pray that you answer the question truthful and honestly. Why did you shoot me as I drove away?

Mr. J, for many years I blame murdering you on my father because he abandoned our family when I was 5 years old. Then at the age of 10, my grandpa was brutally murdered. So I began to shut down all my emotions and feelings and I became desensitized to violence as well as I detached myself from humanity. Furthermore, I was in so much pain, Mr. J., early that morning of Jan. 10, 1989, I felt a dark cloud came over me and I told myself today is the day I'm going to die and I'm OK with dying. Mr. J., I'm not making any excuses for my actions, but at the time I didn't have the tools to handle life issues so I acted out with violence. I'm so sorry, Mr. J., for causing your untimely death.

Mr. Webb, I can't tell you face to face because I'm speaking to you from the grave. But I want you to know that I forgive you and I have no ill feeling toward you for murdering me and I mean that from the bottom of my heart. The most important thing, Mr. Webb, is even though I've forgiven you, you must forgive yourself. Once you come to that place of forgiving yourself and accept full responsibility for your actions then you'll be able to release all the excess baggage of guilt and shame that you've been carrying around with you for so many years.

Once again, Mr. Webb, I forgive you and now I can Rest In Peace.


Mr. J.

Michael Webb is serving 25 years to life in San Quentin for first-degree murder, robbery and assault with a deadly weapon. He was 17 when he committed the crime and started serving his time at 19.

This column appeared in The Beat Within, a publication of writing and art from incarcerated youth. David Inocencio founded The Beat Within in San Francisco in 1996. Weekly writing and conversation workshops are held in California, six other states and Washington, D.C. Submissions and new partners are welcomed. Write to him at

Healing Words: Creative Writing Programs as Therapy for Kids in Detention

Coosa Valley Youth Detention Classroom. Photo by Ryan Schill.

ANNISTON, Ala. -- Mercy Pilkington’s classroom, at first glance, seems like any other in the nation’s public school system. Novels penned by John Steinbeck and Harper Lee are stacked over a U-shaped row of cubicles. The walls are lined with laminated posters; crayon-colored cutouts of chubby red robins and lime-green pigs are pasted on the room’s sole window.

Pilkington, 39, has taught for 11 years. For the last six, she’s been an English instructor at Coosa Valley Youth Services (CVYS), a facility for juvenile offenders in this northeast Alabama city tucked in the foothills of the Appalachians. After years of distress from discarding her students’ writing after they left the facility, Pilkington decided to give her students -- both former and current -- the ability to share their writing with the world at large through a blog called “Writers on the Inside.”

The blog gives students access to their essays, poetry and stories long after they leave CVYS, Pilkington said. “When you’re not here, you can call up this website and there’s the story that you wrote,” she tells her students.

On this day, Pilkington’s classroom is primarily an audience of young boys, all clad in neon-orange jumpers, a reminder that this is no ordinary school. She carries a chemical restraint canister at her hip, and a personal alarm is tethered to her keychain. Still, through six years at CVYS, she said she’s never had to use the chemical restraint, and used the alarm only once -- when one of her students experienced a seizure in class.

Although Pilkington has worked with several young people that came from “good homes,” the majority of her students have extensive histories of abuse and neglect, she said.

“If you live in a home where your stepfather rapes you,” she said, “or you live in a house where you come home everyday wondering if your mom is there -- let alone if she’s sober -- it’s not going to turn out well.”

She added: “People need to understand society created these kids. We turn them into the things they end up being.”

“There Are A Lot of Us Interested In What They Have To Say”

Pilkington’s program is not the only one of its kind in the United States. Many programs

Coosa Valley Youth Detention library. Photo by Ryan Schill.

incorporating elements of creative writing have been set up across the nation’s juvenile halls and treatment facilities, with the National Endowment for the Arts recognizing creative writing workshops like Massachusetts’ Actors’ Shakespeare Project and the Los Angeles-based InsideOUT Writers. Proponents of such programs believe not only can creative writing play a huge role in the rehabilitation of young offenders; they additionally serve as opportunities to instill both a sense of empowerment and consistency to a juvenile population frequently considered downtrodden and unstable.

David Inocencio, co-founder and director of The Beat Within, a San Francisco-based magazine that features essays and stories written by juvenile detainees, says creative writing can definitely be a therapeutic process for young people in the nation’s juvenile justice system.

“You’re going to get a young person that’s carrying a lot of baggage to put the baggage in thoughts on paper,” he said. “They’re going to get this amazingly thoughtful writing that speaks to a young person wanting to see a better life for him or herself.”

Inocencio started publishing the magazine in 1996. For the last 17 years, he’s held writing workshops inside juvenile halls across California. Currently, The Beat Within personnel serve more than 5,000 young people in California, and conduct multiple workshops across the nation, including programs in Arizona, Texas and Washington, D.C.

Making writing a habit for young people, Inocencio stated, is a tremendous platform for young people to express themselves and air their concerns about the environments they inhabit.

“We encourage the young people to keep on writing no matter where they go,” he said. “Whether it’s penitentiary, rehab, a group home or back into their communities -- that they keep writing to tell their story.”

Inocencio said writing programs like The Beat Within allow a population without a voice to speak up. The effects, he believes, also prove positive for adults within the juvenile justice field, as it gives attorneys, service workers and judges greater insight into the lives of young offenders.

“We’re able to get a window in the world of this young person,” he said. “In the end, when you read the publication, reading what these young people have to say through the workshops, you’re seeing what’s broken.”

He also believes writing workshops allow young people to develop trust for adults. “There are a lot of us interested in what they have to say,” he said.

The benefits of implementing creative writing programs in juvenile detention facilities are apparent, Inocencio said. “Seeing your writing, knowing that it’s going nationwide and read by folks in Washington, D.C., Alabama, Hawaii -- it empowers a young person.”

Creative writing not only changes a young person’s conceptualization of self, but also alters his or her life goals, Inocencio believes.

“It also helps the young writer realize that there’s more to his or her life than what got him or her in the system in the first place,” he said. “I don’t have to stay in the path of destruction [and I] do have the tools to get a high school diploma, or go on to higher education. Or that I am bigger than the label that has been placed on me.”

“I’ve Had Some Really Surprising Stories”

Coosa Valley Youth Detention classroom. Photo by Ryan Schill.

Pilkington says many of her students ask her if their blog entries have received any additional comments from website visitors. “They’re just blown away that people want to read it,” she said.

The Writers on the Inside entries consist primarily of in-class assignments, which, once redacted, are uploaded to the blog. “The students can’t use people’s names or their hometown,” she said. Additional safeguards ensure blog visitors cannot contact students, and students are not allowed to respond to comments posted on their entries. One of Pilkington’s greatest concerns is that individuals involved in some of her students’ charges may leave hateful or intimidating messages on the blog. She remedies this by setting the blog so all comments have to be pre-approved by her before being visible to visitors to the site.

“Almost everything that’s been put up there has been free writing,” she notes. “If you’ve got something in mind you want to write,” she frequently tells her students, “you’re more than welcome to.”

She said many times, her students just want someone to know what’s happened to them -- to have someone believe their accounts.

“It’s like they have this urge to get out and say, ‘Hey, this is what happened to me,’” she said. “I’ve had some really surprising stories.”

In one essay, titled “This is My Life,” one of Pilkington’s students reflects upon a long history of abuse suffered at the hands of her parents.

“When I hear somebody talking about how bad their life is just because they have a ‘fight’ with their parents, I get really mad.

“My real dad tried to kill me and now I’ll always have that big ugly scar on my stomach to remember it by. By the time I was seven my mom was a stripper/prostitute; she would do anything in order to get money for her drug addiction. Even if that meant selling her own daughter to grown men for support of it.”

Another essayist writes:

 “I have had a terrible life. My biological dad was in jail when my biological mother died, but he had two choices. 1. Find somebody to take care of me or 2. Put me in Foster Care.

“He decided to pick neither. Instead he tried to sell me and my other brother. My brother had some mental issues. He tried to kill me twice. Each time he had tried to drown me.”

Pilkington said although many of her students write about their own experiences, an equal number would prefer writing about more fantastical subjects. “I’ve gotten just as many that will not write about their personal life,” she said. “They want to write fiction short-stories.”

One of her students wrote of a fictitious inmate receiving a lethal injection, while others wrote about high school baseball stardom, earning their driver’s licenses and going fishing with explosives. The theme of guilt and punishment is common, even when the young writers dwell upon made-up worlds.

“As he left the scene of the crime, Victor was bawling,” begins one short story, titled “The Cry of Goodbye,” by a resident named J.F.

“He couldn’t believe his father had murdered that young boy.

“Victor had paid for the fine and the cars, but he new he could never pay for the little boy’s life. Victor had went to the little boy’s house so he could apologize to the little boy’s parents. The little boy’s parents were very happy that he had apologized.”

If You Like To Write, Or You’ve Got Something To Say, You Do It

Pilkington said she was initially surprised the CVYS administration wanted to start the program -- an idea she said was green-lit following an informal parking lot conversation.

“There are great facilities out there; there are some horrible facilities out there,“ she said. “And this happens to be one of the good ones that really cares a lot about what happens to kids.”

Pilkington said, gauging from their reactions to comments posted on her blog, her

Mercy Pilkington. Photo by Ryan Schill.

students believe they have something “worth saying” and something “that people want to know about.” During classes, she said she’s shown her students how to set up a blog, and demonstrated how she can update the site through smart phones and other mobile devices.

“If you like to write, or you’ve got something to say, you do it,” she said. “You don’t worry about what other people think about it or if just two people read it today. It’s your site.”

At the facility, Pilkington said some of her students have to write their essays using felt tip markers.

“I’m a writer myself, and I can’t imagine having to write my story on notebook paper with a magic marker,” she said.

Her students’ desire to write, even when having to resort to unconventional implements, demonstrates an emotional need to get their stories out, she believes. In some instances, Pilkington said, her students’ work is barely legible.

“We go through every single word and fix it to make it readable,” she said. “We sit there, and word for word, put a comma here, capitalize this.”

Pilkington said her intent with the blog is multifaceted, but at the end of the day, she just wants visitors to realize many of her pupils have a knack for the written word.

“I want people to read it,” she said, “and go, ‘Wow, the 15-year-old burglary suspect actually can write a decent story.’”

For Kids in Juvenile Detention, Creating Hope Through Writing and Art

For the better part of the last two decades, The Beat Within has been committed to a mission of providing incarcerated youth with a forum where they can write (and draw) about the things that matter most to them, explore how they have lost connection with those things they value, and consider how they might re-connect to positive situations in their lives through the power of the written word.

This is a program that started small, in the Bay Area, with a commitment to provide detained kids between the ages of 11 to 18 with a safe space to share their ideas and experiences while promoting literacy, self-expression, some critical thinking skills, and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community.

That modest local effort has grown into a nationwide program that touches the lives of more than 5,000 youth in detention. Today, you can find weekly Beat workshops going on in 12 California county juvenile halls, from Alameda to San Diego. We are partnering with universities from U.C. Berkeley to the University of Hawaii. Meanwhile, the workshop model for The Beat is being replicated in Arizona, Texas, Alabama, New Mexico, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, D.C., and, thanks to the JJIE, Georgia.

This is a broad program, one that is committed to providing aftercare for our youth and engagement and partnering with local community-based organizations that can provide job training, mentoring, peer-support, psycho-social support services, individual and group mental health counseling.

But it is the workshops that are the heart of what The Beat Within is all about. To encourage the kids to write and to draw, we begin with a conversation about issues affecting them and how they can make connections between their personal life and the larger community.

Our volunteers package up all of these writings and artwork and submit them for publication in The Beat’s bi-weekly magazine. Every kid who writes receives feedback on their work. When the issue comes out, well, even the young people who might have been suspicious and even hostile applaud when they listen to each other’s writings during the workshops, as well as when they are reading the many entries featured in each issue.

We encourage, through the power of the pencil and paper, for the writing and the art to come from the heart; and that they do!

During these difficult times, we want our contributors to use the art and writing as the light of hope and inspiration. Both channels are therapeutic, meditative, and provide a discipline.

Through art and writing, contributors find this forum as a safe place to reflect on their lives, their current state, as well as dream of a better future. Their work reveals the pride, the pain and insecurities, the fears, and the knowledge, that informs and gives us admirers of The Beat insight of what young people are truly dealing with at this moment in time.

The power of this work reaches many. The admiration from fellow Beat readers and contributors from Georgia, to Washington, D.C., to San Francisco and everywhere in between, gives immense satisfaction and empowerment to these young people, who often have very little self-worth. And thanks to The Beat’s publication, we have created a powerful community and support for these young people.

Often, we view The Beat Within publication as a history book of the week and a true resource guide. In this way, we learn from the direct source what is broken and needs to be addressed in the lives of our young contributors. That's empowering and powerful!

Through this process, The Beat seeks to reduce recidivism by providing youth with positive social means of expression as an alternative to violence and crime that lead them to their current situation. The Beat program does not pretend to solve the problems of youth violence in an economic recession where there are few jobs for young people, and virtually none for those who have left high school. But it can be a springboard for imagining new opportunities.

Programs to develop writing skills to advance a young person’s prospects are confined to the well educated or those judged to be more literate. Yet the Beat has found that the very act of writing (and drawing) improves the skills of those who may desire them the most, but lack opportunities to develop them.

Beyond its core activities, The Beat Within collaborates on projects to place incarcerated youths’ voices into a public forum. Since 2010, The Crime Report (a criminal justice website of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in NYC) features the writings from The Beat each month, and San Francisco State University produced a video on The Beat Within’s workshops and history. Also,The Beat has partnered the last two years with Southern Exposure (SoEx), which is a San Francisco nonprofit visual arts organization that supports emerging artists and youth in a dynamic environment in which they can develop and present new work and ideas.

The SoEx Artists in Education Program and The Beat partnership provides youth with a consistent opportunity to share their artistic ideas and experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy and self-expression. SoEx offers artistic support through consistent weekly workshops in the San Francisco and Alameda County Juvenile Justice Center to build on acquired skills and ideas.

These young people in the San Francisco and Alameda County Juvenile Justice Centers make collaborative and individual artworks that are published in each issue of The Beat Within.

Letter from Prison

Michael Cabral got his GED last year while serving 15 to life for murder.  On the back of his diploma he proudly wrote: “One step closer to home.”  And that’s not all Cabral is writing.

He joined a writing workshop called The Beat Within, which encourages young people in prison to share their ideas and life experiences with writing instructors. The program changed him. From his cell in a California prison Cabral wrote this letter, which The Beat Within has shared with us:

Mi Carnalito,

Where do I begin? I was recently told a little bit about you by a mutual friend who is very concerned for you. She suggested that I write to you, that it might be beneficial, and I agree… for I have been exactly where you are today. I know what you are going through.

My name is Michael Cabral. I have been incarcerated for nearly seven years now for a crime I committed when I was 17 years old. The first ten months of my incarceration was spent there in juvenile hall, which was the scariest, most stressful, most uncertain time in my entire life, as I’m sure it is for you. I remember that time as one long journey through the expansive and very cruel worlds of “What if…” and “Why me?” Many times I even drove myself to tears stressing out about how terrible I knew prison was going to be, and how terrible my life in general was going to be. I thought about all my people in the calles who needed me, who depended on me, and I convinced myself that I’d failed them, that they wouldn’t make it out there without me. I filled myself nearly to the point of exploding with anxiety and depression. Do you go through that?

I hope not. Because believe me, little Brother, the road ahead of you is going to be difficult, but manageable nonetheless. You are going to experience loneliness like you wouldn’t believe, fear and anger and terrible anxiety, and more than once, you’ll likely feel like giving up. That’s okay. What’s important is that you don’t give up. because with patience, Carnalito, and faith in everything right in your life, you really will be okay. Pay attention and ask questions, and things eventually will get easier.

In the meantime, as difficult as it may be, you have to accept that your life is the only life you have any control over. You’re going to miss your family and worry about them. But struggle is a part of every single life, and was going to come to them with or without you. So, the best you can do for them (and for yourself) is have faith in your family’s strength and perseverance. Support them with your own words of encouragement and prayer, of course. But ultimately, you have got to trust them to manage and make it through their own lives. Be proud of them for that. Celebrate their successes.

Celebrate your own successes, as well, both big and small. Like if you make it through an entire day knowing you lived right that day, congratulate yourself. And when you slip up and make a mistake, embrace that, too. Study your mistakes — how you made them, why you made them — and ask yourself how you can avoid making that same mistake in the future. (Just don’t forget to put your responses into action.) I promise you, little Brother, you will be stronger for your courage to change and grow, which I believe is the key to rising above this prison madness. People who refuse to grow in here, stay in here. So never hesitate to learn! It’s exactly what got me through Juvenile Hall, County, Wasco. It got me through Pelican Bay (both the mainline and two and a half years of being in the hole). It’s what gets me through my every day here at Salinas Valley. Because no matter what else is going on around me, I know that I’m finally becoming the man my family deserves to have in their lives, a good man, and it’s an awesome feeling. You feel me?

But that’s for living. You also need survival. Don’t worry, though, that’s the easy part. Stay away from all vices! Drugs, drinking, gambling, sexual activity are all easy ways to find yourself in a wreck. And if you can, don’t take anything from people, especially people you don’t know. Nothing is free in here. Also, there are no such things as secrets in prison, so keep your personal life personal, and don’t talk about people. Don’t speak up on things you aren’t sure about. Nobody in here will ever be convinced that you are anything other than a youngster, so it’s okay just to sit back, listen and observe. That’s what you’re supposed to do. And don’t raise your hand to do anything. There are plenty of idiots around for that. You’re better than them.

Other than that, little Brother, just keep your head up. Never deny how awful this place is (complacency is like a disease here), but find reasons to laugh. Whoever said that laughter is the best medicine was absolutely right! Indulge in reading, writing and music. Those things can be like gifts from some divine place. I swear!

Well, I hope this letter was at least a little helpful. You’re not alone, and you’re certainly not beaten. Faith in yourself will be your greatest asset, but know that the people who love you have faith in you, too. Take care, Carnalito.


Thanks to The Beat Within for allowing us to use their content.  The Beat Within offers weekly worshops in juvenile facilities in California, Arizona, New Mexico, Florida and Washington DC.  The organization’s mission is to provide incarcerated youth the chance to share their experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, critical thinking skills and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community.