In February 2021 I started writing to inmates. I saw a video about people who wrote letters to prisoners on death row and it moved me. I felt that I wanted to get involved, and so I started doing some research about it. Surprisingly, I found several websites where one can sign up to be a pen pal. I browsed through some profiles, picked a few based on common interests and hobbies, having no idea how writing to inmates would change my life.
I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I got to know these men, and as time went by friendship evolved. I began to care about them, worry when I didn’t hear from one of them for a while or when they were on another lockdown or if something happened at the prison.
I met some of their parents (online or on the phone), an aunt, a fiancée, and also a few other pen pals. I read some of their poetry, essays, and books. I published their poems and essays on this website and I also published books for another pen pal. More came of this, creating a website for one pen pal, becoming co-admin on another pen pal’s website and his social media accounts, calling companies to ask about the delivery time of their food packages, and so on.
I did it all because they don’t have the freedom to do it, and because I wanted to. Those men’s hands are tied, and regardless of what they did in the past, they are not the men they were 15 or 20 years ago. I wanted to help where I could.
What I Learned
Writing them has also been an eye-opening experience for me. Although I was already aware that the justice system isn’t always fair, I had no idea about the extent of it, about the 100,000s of innocent people that are locked up, 100,000s of people who are over-convicted, serving sentences for more than what they did. Let’s say, murder instead of manslaughter, or getting multiple charges instead of the one you were arrested for, which adds more years (or decades) to your sentence.
Racism, arbitrary treatment, negligence, mental health issues, ad seg, bad treatment or being regarded (and treated) as sub-humans are all issues I was aware of but – again – what I learned in this past year has been mind-boggling. There was so much I didn’t know, and I think that most people don’t know it.
Justice or Vengeance?
I see so many hateful comments online like “kill him” “he deserves it” “lock him up for life” “he deserves to die”. I understand anger, even revenge, although I don’t believe in vengeance. I understand rage as a passionate outburst at a sudden moment, but not as a lingering volcano that is burning for years or decades.
Carrying so much anger towards a person for such a huge part of your life only hurts yourself, not the one who hurt you. Constant vengeance, abuse, and mistreatment over and over again, every single day for the rest of someone’s life, to pay for a mistake they made in their youth doesn’t seem justice, it is cruel vengeance. I wonder how anyone can cry “justice” while supporting a system of abuse.
Before someone comes wagging their finger at me, telling me “you’d tell a different story if you had been a victim of a crime.” Well, guess what, I have been a victim of crimes. Yes, that is in the plural. I will not go into detail, but – believe me – I know what it’s like to have your life affected by a stranger who commits an act of violence or theft against you or someone who takes extreme actions to cause you pain. I know it very well. It is something you do not forget.
Did I want them to pay for what they did to me? Of course, I did. I was hurt, vulnerable, attacked … I wanted them to have consequences. Did I want them to be locked up for the rest of their lives, give them another life-without-parole sentence that the US justice system dishes out so enthusiastically? No, I didn’t.
Did I want them to suffer abuse every single day for years on end? No, what’s the point of that? And how does that make me (or us) better than them?
I learned that the justice system is seriously flawed and that not all men and women in prison are “the bad guys”. There are bad apples and good ones, inside but also outside of prison. I’ve known of and experienced the actions of horrible people who hurt others, while walking around freely under the guise of “upstanding citizens”.
Hypocrisy is abundant.
So many children are growing up with a parent in prison, which can lead to depression, attention problems, conduct disorder, and dropping out of high school.
When your relative or loved one or friend is in prison, not only they but everyone who loves them is affected. You do not only punish the prisoner by exacting vengeance in court, you destroy families.
Not hearing from them because the prison email system is down again, because there was a fight and everyone in the building is locked down in their cells are some of the things you experience as a loved one. A canceled video visitation, hearing about mental abuse, an insult that a guard hurled at your pen pal, having to deal with the prison staff (and so far – except for one person – none of them have been helpful at all).
In all honesty, sometimes it gets to me. I care about my pen pals, so yes, it gets to me.
A few months ago, during a phone call with one of my pen pals he mentioned that he had to wait in line for nearly an hour. I said, “oh, the phones are busy”.
Yes, that, and well, he was last in line because he is black. First, they let the whites on the phone, then the Latinos, and African Americans last … he said it matter-of-factly as if it were an every-day thing, but I was shocked. I couldn’t believe that such blatant racist behavior was still happening.
Yes, I know that racism still exists. I’m not naive, but despite the knowledge it is appalling to hear about such treatment.
And then ….
Yesterday I received three letters. Three inmates wrote to me. I don’t know them. I was asked if I wanted to help, publish their words. I said yes.
I read their letters … The treatment they have to endure … just everything … it affected me … a lot. After I read the third letter I went outside and I stood there, gazing at the sky. I was suddenly so aware of my freedom and so very grateful for it.
After I read those letters I knew that I had to publish them. I have to get the word out. I don’t know how much it will help, but if you’re here reading this, know that you are appreciated for caring and for reading this far.
Becoming a pen pal led me to step into a world I didn’t know much about. I never expected to get so involved, to publish so much for Thomas, Kenneth, and Eric. It has kept me busy, but I was always glad that I could help them, and others too.
Are you a pen pal to inmates or are you thinking of becoming one? Being a pen pal is very rewarding. If you’d like to know more about it, Wire of Hope is a nice website where you can browse inmate profiles. Then there’s Write a Prisoner, Inmate Classified and many more.
If you’d like to know more about writing to inmates and the benefits, please check out the following article, Why Write to Inmates.
I lived in Thailand for five years and met and spoke to quite a few inmates at Bang Kwan (The Big Tiger) most were accused or caught with drugs, however, all said to me ”I am changed” The BIG Tiger was about 2km from my condominium and I could see it from my balcony.
I think you are kind, considerate and helpful in giving those that have suffered inside and in some circumstances caused suffering outside because there is always some reason that makes sense for reason to be locked down.
You lived really close to that prison, it must have been a depressing sight. I have heard stories of Thai locals and tourists who were caught with drugs in Thailand and got locked up there. I’ve also seen some movies about it, depicting true stories.
Thank you for your comment!
Hi Lila, I have read several of your articles about your pen pals and every time I am in awe of your compassion. It says a lot about you as a person that you take all this trouble to help others. I admire you for that! <3
It indeed is unbelievable that racism still exists on the scale it actually does. As you said, they call themselves the 'good people', the 'law-abiding citizens', most of the time they say they are patriots and nationalists as well. All the while thinking of other human beings as filth. Despicable.
The focus is always on the small group of people in prison that really doesn't want to be good. Those who continue drug trafficking from prison. Who even give murder orders from their cells.
I can imagine that it is difficult for guards to distinguish who is really bad and who is trying to make the best of it despite everything. But to assume by definition that all prisoners are bad is a wrong premise.
Let's hope your articles raise awareness and make a difference.
I agree. There are people in prison who have to be there, who shouldn’t get out, people who won’t change, who still commit crimes even from within prison walls, but unfortunately those individuals tarnish the general public’s view of all prisoners. There are many good men and women in there, many innocently charged or over-convicted, and also many who are guilty of terrible crimes but who have changed, who regret the pain they caused and who are now helping fellow prisoners with educational programs, law, write books, poetry, or make art to be donated to charities.
I agree that guards may have a hard time distinguishing between the bad ones and the ones who are trying to start a new and better life, but I also think that they aren’t trained for it. I doubt that they get any psychological training.
To assume that all prisoners are bad is indeed very wrong, as much as assuming that all people outside of prison are “good”, because we know that is not the case. Many people leave prison with PTSD, so what does that really say about the way prisons are run?
Thank you for your valuable comment!
It’s very nice of you to connect with inmates with the outside world so that they can feel the warmth. I believe every inmate has a different story to share from the inside.
I would choose to become the pen pal to encourage & support them and help them go through a hard time. It’s also an excellent chance to cherish what I have and not take everything for granted.
Thank you so much for sharing that information today. 🙂
Indeed, a pen pal is there to encourage and support. Many have lost contact with friends and family over the years, so a pen pal can provide the human contact they need. We all need human contact. I can imagine no worse punishment than mental isolation …
Thanks for your comment!
Thank you very much for sharing this. The truth is that this article has touched me. Many years ago I went to hear a lecture by a person who was on death row and was finally released. There was an association that gave support to these people and they told us about the possibility of writing to a person. It was clear to me that I wanted to do it, although I don’t know why I never got around to it. Maybe now is a good time to start.
I have always been against the death penalty. I don’t think it makes any sense, it doesn’t solve anything and it doesn’t resonate with me at all. Revenge and hatred can never serve as an argument in the name of justice, nor will it lessen the pain of the victims.
Thank you very much for the article and for listening to these people and giving them support when they need it most. I would love to read more articles on this topic.
The lecture you attended must have been impressive, I’m sure it left an impact on everyone who attended.
Thank you for your kind words, and I will publish more on this topic. I have also shared poems and essays by some of my pen pals on this website, if you’d like to read them.
This would be a different experience if someone did not know what it’s like in there shoes. The time they spend by themselves just thinking and with being innocent can bring hate. Inmates holding feelings in and not sharing, but you are publishing there poems to give them credit for their work.
This article we can all learn something do not judge a book by it’s cover.
True, do not judge a book by its cover.
Thanks for your comment!