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A Word About “Pen” Pals

written by a former prisoner 

…with a boundless heart Should one cherish all living beings: Radiating kindness over the entire world Spreading upwards to the skies, And downwards to the depths; Outwards and unbounded, Freed from hatred and ill-will.

It happens in every prison in America at about 3 PM Monday through Friday. Men and women and children peer at the correctional officer and bundle of mail he or she has in their hands. The wait with anticipation for their name to be called. Some hear their name and beam with happiness, a sense of self and worth. Others don’t hear their names and feel the weight of dejection and rejection. Prisoners are told a hundred times a day that they are useless pieces of living meat, unwanted, unloved and unneeded. Mail call either shows the system up for the liar it is or it proves it right.

In my own experience as a prisoner I cherished mail call. I used to write every advertiser I could just to get junk mail. It would arrive and men would awe and ooh over the daily stacks of mail and freebie magazines. I threw away the vast majority of material I received. It went into the trash unread. It wasn’t important because it came from an auto mailer, a computer and was untouched by human hands until the mail room got a hold of it. About 4 years ago correspondent, Anna, wrote me through the Prison Dharma Network. This do gooder wrote a few prisoners. I wasn’t anyone special to her. Yet over the years I outlasted the rest and we are the best of friends. I would trust her with my life and sanity. This is only fair because she helped me to preserve my life and my sanity in one of the most violent and abusive places on Earth, an American Penitentiary. It is from the experience of corresponding and genuinely sharing my life with Anna in letter after letter over a 4 year period that I was able to reshape my life and do the work I was able to do in prison and beyond.

It is not just a matter of being a goodie-two-shoes. Anyone can do that. What a correspondent does is change lives. The “pen” pal can serve to be the most influential part of a prisoner’s life. They serve as counselor, trusted friend, teacher and sometimes preceptor. I shudder to think what harm I might have done to others had I not had a correspondent friend such as Anna. I was on a downhill slide when she began to write me. She advised me when I was wrong and praised me when she thought I deserved it.

The letter writing method of communication is a rapidly dying art in America and probably the rest of the world too. Inmates normally don’t have access to email or even free use of telephones anymore. The instant message technology hasn’t reached them. Instead there is the mail call.

I am not saying that if you took on the awesome challenge and responsibility of being a humane friend to a person who is doing time will make you a better person or that you will save the life of another. It will change you, both of you if you let it. The Paramita of Giving is the primary step to bodhi mind.

Giving is not always in the form of material aid. That would be too easy. The postage stamp and letter would cover that. But the Paramita also includes giving “fearlessness.” For the prisoner that translates into worth. He or she has value as a human being. For many that would be the first time in their lives that someone found them to have worth. There is also the gift of Dharma. This does not mean that the writer would have to be a Buddhist teacher. What it does mean is that you could be just a friend who listens with great compassion to the pains and needs of suffering human being. When I was inside I found that finding “pen” pals was difficult. People just have the 30 minutes a week to spend on a felon, a second class human being. A half hour to write a short letter doesn’t seem like that long of a time. It has taken me 22 minutes to write this article and I’ve written a lot already. You might not help to change a prisoner’s life if you write one. You never know until you try.

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