Shaffer: High school Samaritans have pen pals in prison

March 25, 2013 

— They picked a sturdy white stationery, penned a friendly message in blue ink and mailed it to a lonesome crack addict in Tyrrell County – a prison inmate they had never met.

They told him to take comfort, that he had their thoughts and prayers, and they invited him to write back sharing his burden.

To their surprise, his response came quickly, postmarked from the Tyrrell Prison Work Farm:

“Is this my second chance?” he wrote. “I could use a friend right now.”

At the bottom, he signed his name Andre, and he drew a smiley face.

This convict found a pen pal thanks to a pair of high school students, Ben Sistachs and Nolan Hamilton, who vow to hand-write letters to every prisoner in North Carolina.

They spend their Saturdays together, picking names out of a database, affixing a stamp to every envelope: 200 so far, 29,000 to go.

“Smith, Jones, Green ... we try to mix it up,” said Nolan, 16, who attends Wake Christian Academy. “If I was in there, and nobody was writing to me, I’d be pretty upset.”

Their weekend project has grown sophisticated enough for the pair to file papers as a nonproft, Second Chance Letters, and to develop a website under the same name. When I was a kid, the noblest act my friends and I committed was singing Christmas carols at the nursing home – half-heartedly and off-key. Without being asked, Hamilton and Sistachs send encouragement to cheerless felons.

“They seem really sorry,” said Ben, 17, a student at Carrboro High. “They seem apologetic. They seem to want redemption.”

The friends take inspiration from Hebrews 13:3, a Bible verse they include in every missive:

“Remember them that are in bounds, as bound with them,” it reads in the King James edition, “and them which suffer adversity, as being yourselves also in the body.”

They didn’t expect answers, but so far they’ve gotten 20.

Andre wrote them twice. The second time, he enclosed a picture of himself. He talked about being a good person, “a softee,” who squandered his life on crack cocaine, a two-time habitual felon and absentee father. He told Nolan and Ben that he worries where temptation will lead him when he takes his first free steps.

Inside, facing middle age in lock-up, he’d been waiting for a voice – some messenger from a hopeful world.

“Are you that person, Nolan?” Andre wrote. “Is this my second chance? ... I’d sure like to become your friend because I’m lonely. I could use a friend right now.”

Heavy stuff for a high school kid.

Imagine having their perspective on the world when you’re just old enough to get a driver’s license. Imagine driving past Central Prison at 16 and knowing the names of the men inside, who’ve been stuck there since your parents started dating.

Kids get faulted all the time for being couch potatoes, for living virtual lives attached to their iPhones, for not knowing about Watergate, for never having seen “Star Wars,” for failing to read the newspaper (and I’ll chime in on this last one, being an interested party).

But I’ll give enormous credit to a pair of teens who found a biblical passage that drew them to pity rather than to condemn, and to turn their eyes to the least of men. I counted on Friday, and it turns out I’ve been inside 12 different prisons and jails (always as an invited guest.) Nearly every inmate you meet there will tell you they’ve become devout Christians while in stir. Wardens I’ve known will shrug, and maybe even roll their eyes. They’ve heard it before.

But I can suggest a few inmates I’ve met who’d like an encouraging note from the outside, who don’t get a lot of visits, who strike me as genuinely sorry for – even tormented by – their youthful mistakes.

There’s Freddie Cole Jr., convicted of murder in 1977, grown old behind bars. When I met him, he had written and directed a Christmas play, casting his fellow convicts as angels and shepherds.

There’s Dalton Windley, who fired a shot in anger and killed a rival for a girl’s affection. That was in 1993, when he was 20. Since then, he’s offered to donate a kidney and one of his eyes as atonement.

There’s a thousand more who aren’t so sorry, who never will be, who didn’t amount to much on the outside and still don’t.

I’ll bet they still get a spark lit inside when they hear “You’ve got mail.”

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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