The lost art of letter writing is alive in a place where freedom is not: the prisons.
The letters come to the newspaper handwritten, their envelopes often branded by a stamp: “Mailed from ... correctional center.” That stamp seems both a warning and a dismissal, a mix of “consider the source” and “beware the sender.” Not junk mail, but worse, jail mail. But to me, that stamp makes the missives more, not less, compelling.
Someone imprisoned, deprived of their freedom but not their ability to express themselves through writing, has tunneled out with a pen and has come up yearning to be heard.
I read what they have to say.
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Sometimes the letters are messages from the mentally ill or complaints from inmates more angry than convincing. But often the letters are reminders of a human spirit that cannot be walled in. There are cries from inmates who insist on their innocence. Or, more often, those who argue that their punishment exceeds their crime. Those claims are getting acknowledged. National and state leaders – Republicans and Democrats – are realizing that warehousing people for decades is often inhumane and too expensive.
Yet what strikes me most about letters from inmates is not the big issues, but the small ones. Being in prison is about more than losing your freedom. It is about losing your individuality. You become a number, a code in an inventory of humans, and your rights and even your voice shrink to fit that status. For many, the ability to be heard by and to hear from someone on the outside restores a vital sense of identity and connection to society.
Adam Lovell of Edgewater, Fla., saw the need for prisoner communication in church-based efforts to line up pen pals for prisoners. He started a business writeaprisoner.com that forwards 3,000 letters a month to inmates. Lovell said the letters often lead to visits, and studies show that recidivism is lower among inmates who receive regular visitors. Some states, though not North Carolina, are also letting prisoners communicate through paid-email services.
A Jan. 4 letter from an inmate at Nash Correctional Institution struck me as telling about both the daily frustration of imprisonment and the thirst to be heard, especially by one’s family.
Writing in a neat hand over four pages of lined paper, the letter from a 64-yeard-old male inmate begins, “I have been incarcerated in North Carolina for 36 years. One tragic result of this is my daughter ... has wound up in prison in the State of Ohio. Since her arrest in 2004, we have corresponded on a regular basis, always with approval from her warden and from my keepers. ... Also, for the last 5 or 6 years, I have been allowed to make one 15-minute phone call per year to her.”
The inmate goes on to describe how his daughter’s letters stopped coming after he was transferred to Nash Correctional Institution in September. After a month of no letters, he wrote to the mail room correctional officer and was told that letters from his daughter were being returned to sender. Letters between inmates must be approved, and this inmate’s previous permission was somehow lost with his transfer.
This prisoner is not a sympathetic character. After taking drugs and drinking, he and an accomplice entered a drug store in 1980 seeking to steal drugs. During the robbery, he shot and killed the store owner. He was initially sentenced to death, but the sentence was later changed to life in prison. He has racked up 22 infractions, including eight instances of substance possession early in his prison term.
“I am not innocent,” he writes. “I’ve admitted my guilt from day one, and I am sorry for my terrible deeds. I have been trying to do the right thing in here. Drugs were my problem and I can honestly say I have been drug free since 1985. I am not the same man I was 36 years ago. As a matter of fact, 36 years ago I was a fool and not a man.
“Regardless of my rehabilitation, I have been denied parole 22 times since I became parole eligible in 1990. It has become obvious to me that death by incarceration is my fate. So be it.
“However, I am still a human being and so is my daughter. They have taken my freedom and now they have taken my daughter.”
This letter offers a reminder of the power of a personal letter to connect people no matter the distance or the barriers.
Perhaps the inmate will never get out of prison, but he and his daughter can exchange letters again. His official request to correspond with her was approved on Jan. 6.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@newsobserver. com