Why I became a Prison Pen Pal
My becoming a prison pen pal to Harold was meant to be. It was the second week of October, in the evening and I was watching a show on a channel I wasn’t even supposed to be getting as part of my TV viewing package. The channel, Investigation Discovery, had been offered free for a limited time but I was still getting it months later by some fluke. All the better! For years I’d been a crime buff and everything I watched on TV had something to do with one aspect or another of it. I was hungry for new programs and tired of watching re-runs.
Tonight I was watching Breakout. Normally I turned to another channel when that program came on. It was too tense for me, and when the less violent or hardened types who broke out of prison finally got caught I felt bad for them. So I didn’t like watching the show. But when Harold came on I just stopped what I was doing and stared. What was it about him? He just didn’t seem like your stereotype criminal/inmate. He just seemed like someone you’d talk to on the street on your afternoon walk. He seemed vulnerable, approachable. I detected that twice he had to hold tears back, although it was very subtle…but it caught my eye. WHY had he killed two people? WHY was he where he was? Why had he landed on the road he was on?
So, I ran for a pen and wrote down his name. After the show I googled it and there he was, complete with a pen pal profile AND an art website put together by someone in the Netherlands of all places. He had won an art contest over there. It was getting more and more interesting by the second.
I wrote a modest little letter on JMail, saying simply that I had seen the show and how it had piqued my curiosity. I set up the address, but I did it all wrong and there went my letter, off in fact to the wrong state. I waited two or even three weeks for an answer and none came. I thought “well I guess he didn’t like my letter or is not interested in writing – oh well.”
Two days after thinking that, against all odds, I received a reply. It started out “I was delighted to receive your letter….”. Who starts off their letters like that anymore…”I was DELIGHTED” – in fact, who writes letters anymore, period end of sentence? Well, prisoners in the States do, those without access to the internet, because it’s all that’s left to them. It’s their line to the outside world, the only line for many of them, especially those in solitary, where Harold is.
It’s not called “Solitary”. It’s given some euphemistic term: Administrative Segregation, or where he is – “Super Seg” which is a whole other ball of wax. For the longest time I wanted to believe that he was in the mainstream and could actually move around the prison. He’d talk of conversations he had with his close friend, and I’d picture them sitting together at some table, or walking together outside. My “Free World” mind could not bear to picture it any other way.
Then I finally came around to accepting the truth of it all. He was incarcerated 23 hours a day in his cell, with an hour outside. That hour outside comforted me quite a bit. “Well at least he’s got that hour!” You will note that here I am the one needing comforting? It took months of writing back and forth with him to be able to accept that even that hour outside was merely academic. Most of the time there was some excuse why they could not be taken out for that hour. So there goes that final strand, that last silk lining.
Now it’s boiled down to him in his cell most of the time except for showers or exercise. Exercise was done in the “day room” – a larger cell. My “Free World” mind finally took in the whole truth. He had barely seen the light of day for over 20 years.
He comforted me about that quite often. He told me he could take it. He told me that it didn’t matter to him anymore. I couldn’t accept that he could take it – how could any human being? I wished he wasn’t trying to soften the truth for me, but I knew he was, and I pictured him in there, and then I put myself in there and the walls closed in on me and my eyes would fill with tears.
Then I would go out for walks and the space that was MY reality seemed now like such a gift, every visual treat, every ray of sun, every drop of rain, every dog bark coming down the wind.
Submitted by Patricia Russell