Friday, October 9, 2020

Hills and Valleys

Welcome to a Secret Subject Swap. This week 6 brave bloggers picked a secret subject for someone else and were assigned a secret subject to interpret in their own style. Today we are all simultaneously divulging our topics and submitting our posts.

my “Secret Subject” is:

You’re on a cross country road trip and you can only stop in 5 cities. What are they and why?

It was submitted by:


I've been asked a very similar question for secret subject swap which is no problem. It's bound to happen over the years I've been doing this, and it gives me a chance to reflect on whether my answer may have changed. It has certainly been a tough couple years for most of us at least the Americans in the bunch, and that kind of stress--the stress of watching your country fall apart in front of your eyes--changes a person.

But in this instance, ultimately, my answer is the same as it has been. Took me a minute to really dig in, but the purpose and the goodness in what I'm doing came back to me. 

If I were on a cross country road trip and could only stop in 5 cities, I'd choose to visit the people I write in prison. There are 5 currently, so it works out perfectly.

My trip would start out in the panhandle of florida close to my home state of georgia and would eventually take me to michigan, oregon, and two different stops in california. the cities change when they get moved, but the states remain the same. 

I've been open about writing people in prison and making those connections here on my blog and everywhere else I share about myself. It's a topic that people who have been in my life are already familiar with coming from me, but in case you're new, I've been writing folks for 13 almost 14 years now. And it was kind of a therapeutic fluke that I even got started in the first place.

A little over 18 years ago when we were both 20ish (me at 21 and not quite for him), someone I'd known since middle school and someone I'd had B I G feelings for was murdered in his home during a burglary gone wrong. He got home that night while the burglar was still in his apartment and was shot after walking in on the crime. He was still a child really, not old enough to take a legal drink. And the ugliness, the randomness of it, the senselessness made me angry for the longest time especially when the two people involved (burglar and driver) really didn't get much in the way of punishment for the murder.  They'd gotten longer sentences for the drug and gun crimes they'd been convicted of alongside the homicide. I went hardcore into believing in strict approaches to punishment, in long term mandatory prison sentences, in capital punishment.

I turned my career path in that direction and while I pursued a criminal justice degree, cognitive dissonance hit hard. None of the things I thought were needed were supported by the research. Oh sure you could find any ol' jackass who wrote a book about it and plenty of politicians who supported it (which should have been clue 1), plenty of talking heads who brought it up...but the actual research wasn't there. In fact most of the research in the books written by supporters of it was based on twisted interpretations of papers and theories that contradicted everything these books were (like broken windows theory).

Before I'd really changed my mind on the whole of it, I was researching a final paper about the death penalty and its effectiveness for one of my classes, and somehow I stumbled upon a pen pal site for people in prison. There are plenty of them now, but at the time the one I found was a volunteer group who posted little blurbs from people isolated on death row looking for folks to connect with on the outside.

I was shook.

That's probably an understatement.

I was angry. How dare they, right? How could they? How could anyone allow that?

But curiosity got the better of me, and I kept going back to read through them. And eventually I decided to write someone not that much older than me and the person I'd lost. It should have been obvious to me at the time that all these choices had been purely emotionally based. I hadn't logiced my way through any of it.

Hindsight, though, you know?

Looking back, more than anything, I think I wanted to find a monster on the other end of the letters I wrote. I wanted an excuse to keep hold of my anger because such a big part of me was scared to let it go and scared of what letting it go would mean... Would it mean forgetting my loved one and letting *him* and his memory go? I was scared of who I might be without that anger. But those letters changed me forever.

I didn't find a monster. I found a friend.

We didn't always have the strongest connection. He'd grown up poor and unsupervised and in a racist household. He'd grown up more in prison than out and that had an effect, and there were times his immaturity and hatefulness wouldn't bend to any help I tried to give, and I'd have to step away for my own sake, but we stayed a part of each other's lives for the 12 years he remained in prison until he was executed by the state of Texas. I'd be here all day talking about what I think about that decision, but that's not why we're here.

What I learned over those 12 years to now could fill a bookshelf--about myself, people who are imprisoned, and the system. I've written dozens of people and helped them prepare for returning to life outside or helped them fight unfair sentences or just offered them an ear to listen when they had no one else.

It hasn't always been easy or a dream and when I got this question after answering it similarly before I wondered if my answer could be different... It hasn't been an easy year for writing folks. Prisons aren't immune from covid scares because staff aren't tested, and my friends aren't getting adequate prevention measures or healthcare. One person I write had it and was denied so much as a Tylenol for the body aches and fever much less any real help. He didn't even commit a crime; he got a felony murder charge for loaning the actual murderer his car keys. And even if he had, covid isn't part of the punishment. Denying medical care isn't part of it either. It's not easy to see people who have been a big part of your life be exposed to a deadly virus and denied even basic care. you have zero control, and there's no amount of writing and press that changes things. Nothing will change until more people die from it and the courts get involved, and by then it could be far too late. 

And on top of that someone I've written for a long time has grown increasingly paranoid and delusional and aggressive over the last few years. I've tried in vain to get him into programs for his mental health and when I finally managed to last year, he immediately took himself out of it because he wasn't automatically given carte blanche access to things he wanted. He became obsessed with doing violence in prison to get his way and ended up targeting two child molesters because they're politically neutral by prison standards. No one would have a vendetta against him if he hurt someone accused of those crimes. They both died from their injuries. Say what you want about the value of the life of these particular people. I get it. But I also know him well enough to know that he did this A) because he needed help he didn't get and wouldn't accept and B) because he thought it would make the prison administration bend to his demands. I've had to redefine what my ethics and moral lines are over these years as it is, and with this, a line had been crossed that I couldn't move or bend or redefine. I made a tough decision to cut the friendship because the person who did those things is not the same person I started writing and in the aftermath of the attack it became pretty clear there wasn't much of him left at all. It was also clear I wasn't safe writing anymore. The conspiracy thinking had amped up to a level where he thought everything was some kind of code or coded message. I know I did the right thing for me, but I also have immense guilt for not being able to get him the help he needed before this all happened.

I guess saying it hasn't been a great year for writing folks is a bit of an understatement.

Was it enough to change the way I think about it overall though? Almost. Admittedly, I almost lost all desire to keep going. There were so many times this summer I didn't know how I would keep finding the motivation to put pen to paper and do the thing, but I have a few people I've written a long time that have been there anytime I needed to vent and been as much of a friend as anyone else in my life. It's not just letters and acting on their behalf with the system to get help when needed or be a voice for them on the outside. They hype me up on my art and crafting and pin stuff and writing and look forward to pics of my car dressed up. They talked me through making my decision to cut the other person off because who else would understand on the same level besides someone familiar with the subculture and politics inside prisons? At the end of the day, I am as fortunate for the friendship as they believe themselves to be, and until we live in a society that gives consequences instead of punishment, every road trip I could take would be best spent visiting folks I never get to see who have very little access to anyone else besides a relative--if they're lucky. 

I've spent quite a few vacations inside prisons visiting rooms. I've sat through tear gas and tear filled families making last visits before an execution. I've laughed and cried and made memories in those rooms like I would with anyone else. Why wouldn't I?


Baking In A Tornado

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Part-time Working Hockey Mom


  1. I commend you for being open enough to reassess your own feelings based on a more personal experience. I have been struggling, personally, with how to feel about someone who clearly needs help, but refuses to get it (to their own detriment but also that of those around them). I have always said that there is nothing wrong with needing help, but there's everything wrong with not getting it.

  2. I think what you do is so honorable. People forget that these people are still humans and deserve to be treated fairly and with respect. I'm not sure if I ever told you that my husband is an ex-felon. He was arrest at 16 for breaking into a house to support a wife and baby that he "had" to marry. He was not given any council, his family wrote him off as one of 12 there was to many to take care of anyway and he was sentenced to 5 years in prison. He did those 5 years and even though we had seen each other in junior high we didn't know each other. I met him again a week after he got out of prison. That was 30 years ago and my life with him has been amazing. Just think of all I would have missed out on if I hadn't given him a chance because he was an excon!

  3. I think it is great that you were able to find peace with a situation in the manner you did. It shows character. One day, you should write a book about what you've learned by writing prisoners. I'd be fascinated by it.

  4. Respect for overcoming your anger and for digging deeper.
    I think you're doing a great thing there.

    From what I (believe to) know about the United States' "justice system", a lot of it is disproportional and unjust. As for my own country though, offenders' "human rights" are being taken too seriously, and the victims and their families aren't getting anything.