I haven’t heard from you in a while! Seems I always start my letters off with that sentence. The last time you wrote, you said it was because you have been really down. I’m so sorry to hear this, if it is in fact still true. I pray for you daily.
So begins my most recent monthly letter to my “Prison Pen Pal”, Jason. I cannot tell you any more about Jason, except his last name, which I won’t, and the prison in California in which he is incarcerated, which I won’t. Oh, and I can tell you his prison number and his bunk number. Yes, I can tell you where he sleeps. But I don’t know if he sleeps well. I do know he does not live well. And, I suppose, that is the aim of incarceration: to punish those who have done wrong.
I was matched with Jason through a religious organization based in Washington D.C. Inmates express an interest in having a pen pal and are then matched with a volunteer, like me.
The organization’s stated goal: “The prison pen pal program is one of hope… it helps instill a positive attitude due to hopeful messages we send; and, most importantly, it tells the inmate someone cares.”
Well, I thought, I can do that.
The rules are these: write about daily happenings, sports, current events, spiritual matters. Do not tell the inmate your last name, do not offer personal information about your family, do not send money, gifts, stamps. A small prayer card or poem is allowed.
So, with rules firmly ensconced in my brain, I sit down to write the letter.
And I am stuck.
Just what do you write to someone who lives worlds away, both literally and figuratively? Do I tell him stories of things “the rest of us” are doing? Does he really want to hear about my trip to Knoxville? My daughter’s wedding? Our camping trips? The weather? All things he is not able to experience for what I assume has been and will be a very long time?
What else is there for me to write about? So I proceed to tell him about my impossibly cheerful life.
Then I ask him about his life. I ask what he is reading, if he watches TV, what else he is doing. I desperately want him to tell me that he is taking a class, earning his GED or college degree, that he is training for a job for when he gets out. I desperately want to know that our prison system is just as interested in rehabilitation as it is in punishment.
Finally, I get down to the spiritual stuff: I tell him that I am praying for him daily, which I am. How God loves him and watches over him, (and don’t I hope that’s true!). I’ve found a collection of inspirational cards, and I send one with each letter. On one side is a Bible verse: “May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might”, and on the other side an inspirational quote: “The stars may fall, but God’s promises will stand and be fulfilled.” Another card says, “If life hands you lemons, keep calm and make lemonade!” I throw that card away.
Jason sometimes writes back, although not often. He is a good writer. His first letter asks for money, to pay for coffee and stamps and toothpaste. I am not allowed to do this, but honestly, it nearly kills me, because $15 means nothing to me. I don’t send the money, and I tell him so, and he does not ask again. Jason’s subsequent letters comment on my news, and he offers congratulations to my daughter on her marriage. He hopes to marry one day himself. He often tells me he is depressed about “some of my dealings”. He sounds pretty hopeless, but he does pray that “God and the Mother will make a way…”. He is a devout Catholic; I tell him I am a devout Lutheran.
With my last 2 letters, I send a poem. Here is one:
The Peace Of Wild Things - by Wendell Berry
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
I do not know Jason’s crime, and I choose not to think about it. I do choose to think of Jason as a good human being, someone who wants to turn his life around. My cheerful disposition allows me no less. Even if he is a really “rotten-to-the-core guy”, I still think, perhaps naively, that there is hope. And a chance at redemption. I know the prison guards might tell me differently.
Still, I choose to hope. And to believe. And to let someone know that I care.