The Chicken Farmer and the Soccer Mom.

AuthorBlackwell, Christopher
PositionPartnership and email exchange between two writers

Christopher Blackwell, forty-one, is an incarcerated writer in Washington State who previously worked in prison as a chicken farmer. Jamie Beth Cohen, forty-six, is a writer who is not incarcerated. She lives in the suburbs of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania; although she doesn't identify as a "soccer mom," her kids do play soccer. The two were paired in 2020 by a program called Empowerment Avenue (EA), which supports incarcerated artists and writers.

Since their pairing, which was EA's pilot match, Chris has placed more than fifty pieces of writing, ranging from extensively reported articles to intensely personal essays, in large and small outlets including The New York Times, The Washington Post, HuffPost, The Boston Globe, The Progressive, and others.

The following is an email exchange between Chris and Jamie about their partnership. It has been edited for length and clarity.

JAMIE: I can't believe we've been working together for more than two years. Because you're on the inside and I'm on the outside, time moves differently for us. Sometimes I feel weird about that. Like when we talk and I ask how your week was, and I'm thinking, "How do you think his week was? He's in prison, during a deadly pandemic, separated from all of his loved ones."

CHRIS: I don't know if others feel weird when folks in the free world ask about their week, but I love it when you do. When you share the drama of your kids' lives. When you open up about these things, it reminds me of just how close we've become. Yes, we work together, but we're also close friends.

On a recent call, I told you that when I'm released, [my wife] Chelsea and I are going to pay for a trip for you and your family to somewhere cool like Disneyland. You laughed and said, "Oh, the kids will really love Uncle Chris then." I didn't tell you at the time, but I started to tear up. That moment allowed me to see how close we really are. You are an incredible parent, and very protective of your children, so hearing you say that--including me as a member of your family--did more for me then you may ever know.

I'm in prison for taking someone's life, and sometimes I wonder if people will ever see the real me, or if I'll be forever condemned to a life of judgment. Yet in moments like these, I'm reminded that I'm more than the harm I've caused. And that doesn't absolve me of that horrible act, but it does let me breathe freely and know I have support in doing the work I do, which will hopefully stop...

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