Thursday, 1 October 2009

Post strike.

Some time ago, I started writing to a man in the States, called Sean. He was in prison for bank robbery, something I verified before writing to him. There are web-sites dedicated to finding pen-friends for prisoners. I have a lot of prison pen-pals, and I always check them out before answering their ads. There are some types of criminal I won't consider for a pen-pal (anyone on the sex offenders register, for example). Justifying why I want to write to someone in prison is quite difficult, but I shall try to explain.

Prisoners are human, just like the rest of us. They have made some poor choices in their lives and now they are paying the price. Hands up who hasn't made a poor choice in their life? No? Nobody?

Exactly. We all make bad choices. Some of us get away with them, and learn to make better choices without going to gaol. Others get caught. Hang on, I hear you cry, I never did anything really bad, like rob a bank or kill someone. Nope, me neither, but I bet we've all broken the law at some point, whether intentionally or not. Some people make really big bad choices and have to live with the results of their actions.

Next questions: what was the worst thing you ever did?
do you think it defines who you are?
do you think you have more to offer than the worst thing you ever did?
would you like to forget you ever did it, put it in the past and never mention it again?

A guy sitting in prison, for whatever reason, generally doesn't want to be defined by the worst thing he ever did (unless of course he is a total sociopath wishing to be known as the next Vlad the Impaler). Most of them, and I know I'm generalising, are fairly normal people, caught up in events that led them to commit a crime. Their family and friends may have abandoned them. They are lonely and bored. They're sorry already, but have another 12 years to serve.

There but for the grace of God go I. Many of the prisoners I write to, committed their crimes because of drug addictions. They were high at the time or they were so mixed up in drugs and gangs that the choices they made seemed sane when they made them. To look for a cause for murder or robbery - look back to what got them involved in drugs or gangs in the first place.

Then, thank your lucky stars that you had a better up-bringing and caring parents. Be thankful you weren't born to parents in a Mafia or on an estate where only the tough survived. Be thankful the choice to do the right thing was easy, rather than the other way around.

I know, I still haven't answered why I give these guys the time of day.

Firstly, because I can see beyond their crime. They are not just what they did. They are still humans, needing contact with the outside world.

Secondly, I see writing to the incarcerated as a sort of service. Maybe, I put a smile on someone's face. Maybe, I can show someone how to escape from their past, just by giving them a window into another world. Maybe, a crime won't be repeated because I believed in them, or they thought I did.

Thirdly, it challenges me. I have had my assumptions and preconceptions changed by writing to people on the inside; by writing to "bad" men. I get a lot out of it. I have grown in understanding by doing this. I have learnt more than I could possibly have imagined when I started writing. As a leap of faith, it has been very rewarding.

So, Sean, whom I mentioned at the very beginning. He wasn't my first prisoner, nor my last. He was, however, my favourite. Sean was a very funny guy. His letters were filled with a sharp wit and he would take an idea and run with it. He was very in tune with me, understanding what I meant without me having to explain things in detail. We bounced letters back and forth for a couple of years, and I would look forward to each missive coming through the letterbox. He made me laugh, and frankly, I miss him.

Behind bars, people are 'doing time'. They have plenty of time to write stuff, and they are bored stupid. Letters are a nice distraction. Once that long awaited parole comes up, the parolee suddenly discovers a whole wide world out there full of busy things to do. Release date generally sees the end of correspondence. They don't write once they get out. Some of them really intend to carry on corresponding, whereas others don't even mention their parole date, they just stop writing. I understand and I try not to take it personally. I couldn't do this 'job' if I did.

Sean got parole, I think, last July. Consequently, I haven't heard from him since. I know, he's probably having a whale of a time. I know he (of all people) probably intended to write to me, but freedom got in the way.

Anyway, I miss getting letters from him. I have other letters to answer, but the magic is gone. They don't sparkle and inspire in the same way. I know, I'll get over it and things will move on. I feel better for having written it all out.


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