Incarcerated as a Teen, Man Found His Passion for Writing

He discovered it after he was put in lockdown for 72 hours with only a pencil and some paper.
Andrew Thomas August 18, 2018

In many U.S. states, up to 80 percent of kids who have spent time in a juvenile detention facility will be re-arrested within three years of release. That’s a sobering statistic.

The power of music and the written word kept this man from going back—and for almost 20 years he’s been helping keep other kids from being incarcerated in the first place.

Terrance Turner grew up in Tacoma, Washington, under some violent circumstances. At age 13 he was shot, and by age 15 he was part of the gang that shot him.

Turner eventually was involved in a robbery gone wrong, and was convicted of robbery, kidnapping, and attempted murder.

At age 15, Turner was sentenced to Juvenile Life, meaning he would be incarcerated until he turned 21.

For the first four years of his sentence, Turner did what he describes as “hard time.”

(Courtesy of Terrance Turner)

“There was a lot of brutality and a lot of inhumane stuff going on there, so I bucked the system. I did not want to conform,” Turner told Humanity.

Turner didn’t believe in the criminal justice system, and didn’t think it was right. Every day he fought against it. One day, after failing a drug test, the prison took his visitation rights away.

He wouldn’t be able to see his mother, who used to visit him on Sundays. For the next 72 hours, Turner was in his cell 23 hours a day.

He called his mother to vent his frustration, but she wasn’t having any of it. She urged him to take responsibility for himself, and to stop blaming others.

“It took me four years to realize that if I just give them what they want, even if I don’t believe it, it’ll make my time easier,” Turner explained.

During his 72-hour lockdown, all they gave him was a golf pencil and some paper. That’s when he began writing; he called his composition “Incarceration is Death, Can you Survive?”

For the next year, Turner improved his behavior immensely.

(Courtesy of Terrance Turner)

Seven months after his 72-hour isolation, a woman who worked on the prison staff named Susan Cravey suggested Turner join an educational program called Gateways for Incarcerated Youth.

In Gateways, inmates attend classes, and can eventually complete their Bachelor’s degree at Evergreen State College after their release. Students from the college can attend classes alongside the inmates in the prison and serve as academic mentors and coaches.

Initially, Turner wasn’t interested. Cravey didn’t give in, though, and kept on encouraging him to give the program a try. He respected and admired Cravey, so decided to give it a shot.

“There were about three people out of 150 that would come in and treat us like human beings, and [Cravey] was one of them,” Turner recalled.

Turner began taking classes in the Gateways program, and after the first quarter the tutors asked the students if they had any art that they wanted to be shared outside of prison.

Initially, Turner was reluctant to submit anything.

But, knowing he had some talent, the tutors exhorted him to do so—it was a chance to get his voice heard by the wider community.

He went back to his cell and found “Incarceration is Death Can You Survive,” and gave it to Sandra Smith, one of the students in the program from Evergreen State College.

Once classes resumed, Sandra Smith approached him about his writing.

(Courtesy of Terrance Turner)

She brought back pages upon pages of positive feedback from people who had read his essay, and it moved him.

“I believed in human beings again,” Turner recalled.

He spent the next quarter polishing the piece, and the program published it as a book, sold it, and gave him the profits.

“It changed my life. That was what made me who I am today,” Turner explained.

His first book was so powerful, that the program approached him about writing a second one. He was all for it, and published his second piece at age 20 entitled “Though the Eyes of the Judged,” which is now required reading for Gateways students.

In addition to his affinity for writing, Turner had developed an interest in music while he was incarcerated.

(Courtesy of Terrance Turner)

Initially, he started recording his own music in prison, and sent it to his brother outside of prison. After his release in 2000, Turner continued recording his own music.

A good friend of his begged him to record him, and Turner reluctantly agreed. Afterward, his friend shared it with the community.

Within the next month or two, people we coming to him asking him to record their music. After helping a talented young group with their first album, he realized the need for a studio like his.

He had asked the city to help him, but they declined. That didn’t stop Turner.

That’s when he decided to open his home studio called Caution Studios to at-risk youth in 2004. He also started his own record label called Cause-N-Effect Wracords.

Turner estimates around 200 kids have come through his studio.

“It was something that Tacoma really needed. I opened my doors, and they came flooding in. I think it was just something that was needed.”