SEEN is a prison portrait and poetry project. But more importantly, it’s a Minnesota portrait and poetry project. Through photography, video, and written word, we share the poignant brilliance of poets and prose writers in Minnesota state prisons, and work together to make the invisible visible, the unheard heard, and the unseen seen. Mass incarceration is dependent upon the ignoring and erasure of the human beings we cage. In collaboration with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop (MPWW) and the thoughtful, intelligent, humble, and deeply gifted writers on the inside, WAAC challenges and disrupts mass incarceration by clearing the pathways for people behind bars to have their voices heard, faces seen, and humanity recognized–and for people on the outside to reckon with the inhumanity of our country’s mass incarceration mass disaster.

Or, in the words of B, the poet: This is about being seen (not looked at: truly seen)—but also about seeing yourself, or a piece of yourself, or a piece of someone you love, in me.

With generous support from the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundations, and in continued partnership with MPWW and the Minnesota Department of Corrections, our ongoing vision for this project will include portraits and the written and spoken word of more people who are currently incarcerated, correctional and probation officers, and the family members and loved ones of people currently incarcerated.

Keep an eye on the site for upcoming exhibits, as well as our Facebook and Instagram pages, for more from these incredible artists.


Wasifu Wa Marehemu: The Epitaph of Death

There will be no roar of drums summoning mourners to my funeral. The great horn of the rhino will not sing my name.
The women who loved me won’t be there to bathe me in milk, or plant the red flowers that will eat my blood.
The elders won’t plant the giant flame tree that will guard my spirit.
The sacred black bulls won’t stomp down my grave
like they did for my father, his father, and the fathers before him. The great python won’t sleep on my grave in homage.
My name will not be carved into a spear.
My heart will not lie in the belly of the warrior drum which rumbles on its own in war times.
If this is exile, I don’t know what to call home.



Excerpt from “Rant”
By Bino

While I was conversating with a scholar I said the word conversating and they said to me, “You know that’s not a word.” I said “Yeah. That’s too bad.”

I was typing a poem in Microsoft office and used the word unhospitable, Microsoft placed a red squiggly line under it, informing me that unhospitable is not a word. I right clicked it and added it to my computer’s dictionary. Now it’s a word.

One day I was conversating with an intelligent thug and he assumed I mistakenly misused a word, which he took upon himself to correct me on. I said to him “People misuse the N-Word every day-all day.” But, then again, maybe they’re not misusing it at all.

On a different day while a group of intellects were conversating I referred to white people as Caucasians. They told me, “That’s a made up word.” I said, “All words are made up.”

There wasn’t much disagreement after that.




Excerpt from Pigments and Colors

See us! Each soul, each voice, deserving to be counted.
Count the beats of the hearts in our chests.
Let them count us!
Every man and woman stripped,
by a system refusing to count us except by perpetual addition of another “1” to the state’s tally of indentured servants:
269932, 269933, 269934
Another check for a system wishing we did not exist,
Whose job security depends on our acceptance of a path that leads us to be counted again and again,

See me.
23 years, times 365 days, times 6 counts in 24 hours…
50 thousand
3 hundred
70 times they counted me.
50 thousand
3 hundred
70 times I have been SEEN
as less than a HUMAN BEING



Excerpt from Before I Was Anything

Before I was anything
I was an abstraction, sound waves
moving through glycerin.
Before the effigies of my generation
in orange jumpsuits started tattooing
cuffs on their wrists, bars on their hearts,
I was a red jumpsuit
running under evergreens
on the edge of a mountain.

Back then, I was a story
they would tell me my whole life.




Excerpt from The Visiting Room

I was sitting across from my girlfriend in the visiting room of the Minnesota Correctional Facility at Stillwater three years into my stay there, nodding in understanding as she vented about her latest drama with co-workers. My gaze drifted over her shoulder and landed on a couple and their kid while they all posed for an inmate photographer. As the small family smiled for the camera, a memory jolted loose: I suddenly remembered being in this same room 20 years ago, as a 6-year-old.

I spent the remainder of my girlfriend’s visit distracted, trying to recall all the details. When I was a kid, there was a large play area here, decorated with a mural of the Smurfs; it has now been reduced to a lone children’s bookshelf. I remembered people mingling freely. Physical contact was allowed then, and proud fathers bounced their kids on their knees and lifted them into the air. Couples made out like lovestruck teenagers. One of those couples was my mom and stepdad, Hermón.

It’s not that I completely forgot that my stepdad served time at Stillwater, but I hadn’t realized I had been meeting my visitors as an adult in the very same room. In that moment, I registered the significance of a space that was both anchored in nostalgia and a symbol of my rock bottom.


Excerpt from “Coming to America”
By Sarith 

Every refugee in prison has a unique, compelling story. Each varied story shares one traumatic theme: growing up in the midst of violence brought by war or genocide. Fearing for our lives, we flee our homelands. For years we drifted from camp to camp in foreign countries – I from Cambodia to Thailand, then to the Philippines, my friend, Omu, from South Sudan to Ethiopia then to Kenya – before being resettled in the United States. Omu and I came to America to find freedom. Instead, we find ourselves locked up. Maybe that’s why we both love the movie Coming to America, for its reversed version of our personal story.

Akim, the main character played by Eddie Murphy, came to New York to break away from his royal boredom.

We ran away from war and genocide.

Akim found his queen.

We found prison.


By B


I once mistook a gray moth

lying at my feet on faded grass

for a blanched butterfly.

Its casual stillness,

wings curved hieroglyphs

steely against the bronzed lawn,

startled me;

everything in prison moves in hunched caution,

flightless but bent on flying.

Did it know this wasn’t pasture meant

to land on? Did it know my pale shadow

wasn’t an elm, and never could be? Did it know,

no matter how much pretending,

it was a moth? I tried to find

answers woven in fine silk

on its quiet wings.

The language was dust.



Glitter Squirrel (left) and Louise. Photo by Glitter Squirrel


The Glitter Squirrel in Me
By Glitter Squirrel

bring out the Glitter Squirrel in me

The reading dreamer
The yearbook’s class clown
The nacho-eating Twin’s fan

bring out the Glitter Squirrel in me
the I spent my whole cheque on your Christmas present in me
the vegetarian who gets pork chops for her birthday in

the Captain Crunch iceberg lettuce Wonder Bread with mayo
cheese slices in plastic vanilla ice cream with Hershey’s syrup
Hostess cupcake and 2% milk in me

the four season skin and clumpy mascara
housing laughing crescent blues in me

the negative B blood donor
Black. plastic. flecks. of white alyssum in me
the chalkboard paint on the front flower box
announcing how many soldiers died in Iraq today in me

the plaid shirted tilled fields of the Red River Valley
spring/durum/winter wheat planter
“the grass doesn’t need to be mowed yet”
oil-changing, dog-loving, omelet-eating

Libertarian You, yes you
golden-heart cyclist of the North

You bring out the Glitter Squirrel in me
the otter & the cat cuz I tell everyone
I’m Ragstock but now Nordstroms in me

The 12 pack a day of Tab for 20 years in me.

The lighter and blower of candles
buying Sawatdee to go pad thai with tofu
at the Nicollet location with red fans and small tables.

Wearing a Crate and Barrel badge and something black in me
the I’m not going to talk about a novelist
I’m going to be it in me.

the favorite aunt street marching protester in me
the socialist/hold my ground, I wish there were
more sense of direction in me
the I’ll plant thyme and lavender garden instead
of lawn, can’t change a light bulb in me

the pumps clicking on cobbles & fishnets &
everyone in Women’s studies hates me in me
the punks-don’t-tan, Kinks-concert in me the
thinking that whoever eats veal is a douchebag because they are in me

I am the most dedicated optimism
you ever met, the optimist who stays the course
no matter what.

I am the one you warm the car seat for. I
am the one who ate all your fries.

You bring out the Glitter Squirrel in me.
pedaling tricycle to CCR
alone making crazy eights in the basement
with hair like Farrah thin Levi cords
comb in back pocket
the First Ave regular
the named after a nun
the Uptown stroll
the Violent Femmes cassette Ford 250 extend
cab vs the Vespa and Roxy music
the Stella
Artois the Qtip
lover the
the Psychic Warrior
the Thomas Merton

You bring out the Glitter Squirrel in
me tell my life with a garage full
of stage props
and set pieces.
Closets of old
auditions And

My family visits me every night.
stepping into my green room before the
show left, “we got your back”
left, “you got this”

I am the one who survives to love you That is why my love is like chives

a love to recycle all thoughts lost I love so I can finish the story

the way only a glitter squirrel can.


This is Where
By Louise

I’m from Bineshi’s bloodline.
That’s Bill Baker if you don’t speak Ojibwemowin1.
   Ni migizi dodem2.

I’m from sitting on green boxes on
6-mile corner, watching cars go by.
Sometimes their four doors didn’t match.

I’m from Packer games on Sundays, Greyhound trips for the
holidays, and Easter baskets with Karla.

I’m from women with the same last name and a father
none of us knew.

I’m from the woods; northern.
Where pines and birch bark blanket
both bends of tribal roads,
paved and gravel.

I’m from a single-parent household.
Michael Jackson cassette tapes, Purple Rain posters, and latchkey kids.
I’m from Title V programs. Commods on pantry shelves,
cucumbers grown in
grandpa Jake’s garden, and a
mean ol’ dog named Turkey.

I’m from “crying won’t change anything” and you
“should’ve known better.”

I’m from where silence is normal and
Hugs are warm and forced Catholicism still
weighs heavy on my mother’s shoulders.
At 73—the burden has lightened.

This is where I’ll always return.


1.Ojibwemowin: Ojibwe language.

2.Ni migizi dodem: I am eagle clan.



Burn Baby, Burn
By Jeff

On an early January morning, my mother tossed me out her bedroom window from our second floor apartment. Tumbling through the air like a meteor before impact, my yellow shirt rippled against the brisk winter wind. I landed in a stranger’s arms; a passerby who heard the screams and saw the black smoke coiling out the windows towards the turquoise sky. I was four years old and I had just set the house on fire.

Somehow a T.V. Guide found its way into my left palm, a BIC lighter leapt into the fingers of my right hand. Curiosity consumed me. I tossed the burning magazine on to a recliner that was covered by a quilted rainbow colored blanket my grandmother made. The blanket quickly sizzled into choking black smoke as flames shot up like a Jack-In-the-Box. Terrified, I ran to my mother who was sleeping in a bed adjacent to a wall with two large windows and a framed family photo of three generations–my grandmother, and her siblings, all their children, and a few of the children from my generation, including me.

Mom flung me out the window to save my life. Nine months pregnant with my little brother, she opted to wait for a ladder while sitting halfway out the window. By the time a ladder arrived, the fire had consumed the entire apartment except my mother’s bedroom, which eventually burned up as well, including the treasured family photo. My mom was able to escape the fire I ignited. But it was a close call. She has always been like that though–saving everyone even if she risked getting burned.



Ancestors of the North
By Dawn

Deep into the night I hear council’s query

transported to tranquility

Guided by Wisdom’s gentle voices

the quest of daytime’s meanings

Warn against illusions; test heart’s Truth

dreams steeped in embracing image

Mysterious veil of past and future

laced in Ancestral love’s adulation

When I am lost, they find me

When in flight, they join me

When I sleep, they hold me

Ancestors of the North



Excerpt from “Magical Feet”
By Ms. B

Momma’s feet were my morning and nightly alarm clock; they were magical.  Faithfully, they awoke me every morning by heavily slapping that warped and swollen dew damaged plywood flooring, echoing loudly in my ears.  They were rough, tired, and tough.

As the dust of light to the darkness crept to existence, I could see the shapes and sizes of the speckled blood trail left behind from Momma’s feet.  The floor splinters had invaded her tough skin while she completed her chores; still she continued.

The splitting boards allowed spurts of twigs to grow up and intrude our shack but like a lawnmower, Momma would shift her stubborn feet catching and pulling the root of each twig on her path, gripping them tightly between her toes—uplift, yank—while snatching them from their roots.


Excerpt from The Brief Artist Bio
By Fresh

“…if I choose to paint a series of landscapes or wildlife paintings, then the mere fact that those paintings were filtered through my eyes and interpreted by my hand make them urban, street, and hip-hop in essence.”



The True Story of False Territories
By LaVon

There are hate crimes
plus engraved signs
encased with cement lines,
that cement lines
which are bought
with black lives.

The blood spilled
only fills the groove
upon the tossed quarters.

Pitched by the kids
courted by the kids
responsible for the kid,

whose back toss
is now lost
for about
the same amount of money.

What’s funny,
is now that kid’s night eyes
only catches the bright light
after coppers’ flight
has landed.

In the same sand pit
where a cousin passed
and a sister gasped,
knowing both young men fell
between one or two years after twelve
but could gauge more than twelve.

There are hate crimes
plus engraved signs
encased within cement lines,
that cement lines
which are bought
with black lives.

Wall grime is all that’s left
of a false vest
who’s true test
is access to a bared chest,
whose true treasure
is the perceived measure
of what it takes to become a man.

I stand before thee
with a cold plea.
Look in a mirror,
define what you see.
And I’ll shatter that reflection
with your first deception.

My weapon
is the misconception
of the so called negro man,
defined by the lies
etched in time
divided by the lines
that are truly a crime
yet when dotted
I also signed.

There are hate crimes
plus engraved signs
encased within cement lines,
that cement lines,
which are bought with black lives.

These lines
Cost us everything!

A border wall America got for free.



American School
By Fong

I cried my first day in American school—
Denver, Pennsylvania—no one like me in American school

My spirit flew back to those huts in Thailand’s refugee camp
As tears washed my face, in American School

Where are my friends with dried snot across their faces?
Why my parent’s left me alone—in American School?

A little girl with white hair and blue eyes grabbed me, like she was kidnapping me

I didn’t know then and there that it was called a “Hug,” in American School

We would become best friends and I kidnapped her every day—
She would giggle when I annunciated A-B-C and 1-2-3 in American School

When we have to move again—I again despise them
I could not leave that blue-eyed girl behind in American School

Fong—go and hug her for the last time
Soon she will forget about you at this American School