Skip to content

Herminio Serna and Death Row Childhood

Joe Lockard

Pages 327 - 340



This publication is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons License Attribution - NonCommercial - NoDerivatives 4.0.

Creative Commons License

Herminio Serna (1966-2018) was an incarcerated Chicano / Indigenous writer on San Quentin State Prison’s Death Row for twenty-one years, most of which were spent in solitary confinement. His sole volume of prose poems, "Whisperings from Death Row", appeared two years prior to his death from a drug overdose. Like nearly all incarcerated writers, Serna’s work has received no critical notice. Serna’s writing describes a hellish psychological landscape within death row. The first section of this paper introduces Serna briefly, then explores questions relating to dialogism in prison writing and the exclusion of incarcerated writers such as Serna from public dialogue. A second section discusses Serna’s “death-bound childhood” as a function of death-bound subjectivity created by social terror regimes. A third and final section analyzes the transformation of Serna’s cell into a psychological purgatory, filled with darkness and pain. The context of writing under prolonged state terror in the imposition of capital punishment generates imagery, content, and a death row style.

Key Words: Chicano literature; prison literature; San Quentin State Prison; death row; capital punishment; solitary confinement

1 Aaron, Michele. “Cinema and Suicide: Necromanticism, Dead-Already-Ness, and the Logic of the Vanishing Point.” Cinema Journal 53.2 (2014): 71-92. Print.

2 Anderson, James P. “A Rebuttal To: ‘A Day on San Quentin’s Death Row.’” American Prison Writing Archive at Hamilton College. Hamilton College, 16 Aug. 2017. Web. 31 Mar. 2023.

3 Baca, Jimmy Santiago. A Place to Stand. New York: Grove, 2001. Print.

4 Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1982. Print.

5 Champion, Steve. “The Sword into a Pen.” Demands of the Dead: Executions, Storytelling, and Activism in the United States. Ed. Katy Ryan. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 2012. 53-73. Print.

6 Cunningham, Al. “Death.” American Prison Writing Archive at Hamilton College. Hamilton College. 21 Oct. 2016. Web. 31 Mar. 2023.

7 Faulkner, William. As I Lay Dying. 1930. New York: Vintage, 1990. Print.

8 Gaura, Maria Alicia. “Death Verdict for 3 in Nuestra Familia Gang.” SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle, 30 Jan. 2012. Web. 30 Mar. 2023.

9 Goldberg, Ted. “Coroner Confirms Two San Quentin Inmates Who Died in December Had Overdosed.” KQED. Northern California Public Broadcasting, 7 Mar. 2019. Web. 30 Mar. 2023.

10 Hardy, A. J. “The End of the Line for Death Row?” San Quentin News. 18 Apr. 2022. Web. 30 Mar. 2023.

11 Ibrahim, Yasmin. “Livestreaming the ‘Wretched of the Earth’: The Christchurch Massacre and the ‘Death-Bound Subject.’” Ethnicities 20.5 (2020): 803-22. Print.

12 JanMohamed, Abdul R. The Death-Bound-Subject: Richard Wright’s Archaeology of Death. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. Print.

13 Larson, Doran. “Toward a Prison Poetics.” College Literature 37.3 (2010): 143-66. Print.

14 Norman, Brian. “The Posthumous Autobiography and Civil Rights Memory.” African American Review 53.1 (2020): 25-39. Print.

15 Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four. 1949. New York: Knopf, 1987. Print.

16 People v Lopez. Habeas Corpus Petition for Serna 140427. California Supreme Court. 2016. Print.

17 Rolston, Simon. Prison Life Writing: Conversion and the Literary Roots of the U.S. Prison System. Waterloo: Wilfrid Laurier UP, 2021. Print.

18 Serna, Herminio. Whisperings from Death Row: Poems and Recollections of a Life Imprisoned. Rothersthorpe: Paragon, 2016. Print.

19 Stanutz, Katherine. “‘Dying, but Fighting Back’: George Jackson’s Modes of Mourning.” MELUS 42.1 (2017): 32-52. Print.

20 Trantino, Tommy. Lock the Lock. New York: Bantam, 1973. Print.

21 Watterson, Randy A. “About Me.” American Prison Writing Archive at Hamilton College. Hamilton College, 18 June 2020. Web. 30 Mar. 2023.


Export Citation