I write letters to people in prison.
I do this to offer friendship to people who don’t often have it but also to be a help where I can in legal matters or counseling matters or just a good influence in a life that often has far too few of those. Most of the people I write are in for life, so you can imagine the sorts of things these individuals have been found guilty of doing, but I don’t think a person can wholly be defined by the worst thing he or she has ever done or been accused of doing. I think, instead, that there are lots of factors that often lead up to a split second decision that a person would give their own life to take back, and that we, as a society, can’t just throw those people away. In fact, for many of the people I have come to know over the years, being thrown away was part of the problem to begin with…
It really is a gamble every single time I make the decision to do so. I put myself out there with a person who has often been accused of doing a terrible thing that can never be undone, and even though I do extensive research on the case and the person and try my best not to write someone who committed a crime for the sake of the thrills involved, it is still a huge risk to take. My information—address, age, name—is going into a prison where anyone could get their hands on it if the person I write isn’t careful. And, ultimately, as I have learned over the last 8 years of doing this, all the research in the world doesn’t always indicate what kind of person will appear in the letters I get back.
Whenever you take any gamble especially one that involves human interaction, you have to weigh the potential rewards you may reap against the risks, the potential losses, involved. Are the potential negatives worth the chance to experience the positives? Does the payout, so to speak, make the risk worth taking?
It’s a tough question to answer and one that I have had to continually ask myself. I’d be a liar if I said this was always easy, that I haven’t met some of the most trying individuals I’ve ever come into contact with in my lifetime this way, or that I haven’t been hurt over the years. But, in the end, because of the strength of the friendships I have made both through my letters and by meeting other people who write, it has been more than worth the gamble, worth the risks.
Part of it has to do with being able to reach out and help another person. It’s in my personality to get obsessed in a way with a cause and be an advocate for a group of people (I’m an INFJ). The longer I have done this—writing-- the more I have learned how often people in these situations, in prison, lose everything including friends and a good percentage of their family, and while a good percentage of the population seems to think it’s deserved, I don’t think that works. All the available research, for one, has proven that social support prevents violence within prison and lowers recidivism rates as well. Prison should rehabilitate, but it doesn’t. Not even 1/3 of the people in prison who need counseling and substance abuse treatment actually get it despite evidence showing these services cut recidivism rates in half. In the end, for me, it’s kind of amazing to see what a few letters from a person who has no familial obligations can do to build someone back up and get them on the right track/keep them on the right track. Being a party to that feels pretty fucking good in a way that truly isn’t comparable to anything else Ive done in life. Motherhood gives me the feels for different reasons. Donating, volunteering, or even giving a homeless person some money or help all feels great but it doesn’t compare to really being to reach out and connect with a person in a way that helps them find themselves. Not to mention, I learn as much as I give—about myself, about other people, about how I am perceived and what to look out for when I embark on my future career counseling inmates.
But that’s not the whole of it either. It isn’t some completely altruistic endeavor because I do forge real friendships that keep me afloat when I’m down or stressed. I have friends who make me laugh reading through letters, who let me vent, who—even when they cant give me advice—will do their best to dig through a situation with me and help me see something that I didn’t see myself. I have people in my life that I’ve met through letters that support me in a way that I don’t usually get elsewhere, because it isn’t a friendship based on 140 character snapshots of my life placed on social media updates. It’s authentic in a way that I don’t often get. There are still some (and I stress some) good people beyond prison walls who may have, yes, done an incredibly fucked up thing that can never, ever be reversed, but it doesn’t make them any less human, any less capable of change than anyone else.
At the end of the day, writing has added people to my life over the last 8 years that have brought me immeasurable joy that far surpasses any frustration, negativity, grief, or hurt I have experienced. The gamble has paid out in ways I never could have calculated, and I am far richer for having taken it.