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If you type "Pen Pal" into Google (which I've been known to do from time to time . . .), you quickly come to pages for prison pen pals. Prisoners, not being allowed email access, are probably one of the few demographic groups in the country that still write and receive paper letters regularly.

When I went to the jail last Friday, the guy at the main desk was sorting the mail. So many letters. All the envelopes were handwritten, ballpoint pen, black and blue ink, some in block letters, some in cursive. The pile of letters had an aura that was simultaneously fragile and strong.

The guy sorting the letters was wearing blue latex gloves. There was a box of them on the desk next to the mail.

"Why the gloves?" I asked.

"Because of the stuff that sometimes gets sent--you don't even want to know," he said. Behind me, a mother and her twelve-or-so-year-old daughter were using the kiosk to deposit money for, probably, the sister of the twelve-year-old. It could have been Em from my story, except that Em was two states away from where her brother was incarcerated, so could never visit in person.

It was hard to reconcile the mother, who radiated dispirited resignation, with mail tampering of the sort that would require latex gloves. But I guess not all people are resigned; some are angry and hot-headed.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 9th, 2014 04:34 am (UTC)
Actually, it's kind of strange that they don't allow email. You'd think it would easier to monitor. Perhaps they'll be the last ones left who still send paper letters...
Jun. 9th, 2014 04:36 am (UTC)
Yeah, and I only know what's true of this particular jail--things may be different elsewhere.
Jun. 9th, 2014 09:09 am (UTC)
Fragile and strong
So much in life is exactly this
Jun. 9th, 2014 11:14 am (UTC)
Re: Fragile and strong
I think you're right.
Jun. 9th, 2014 09:38 am (UTC)
I suppose the noxious substances might be sent by victims rather than family members. Though of course these are sometimes one and the same person. :(

In all the years of Open University tutoring, I only got one student who was a prisoner, probably because all the courses I taught were delivered online and prisoners don't have internet access. I think in this case they had printed out the materials and the student sent the assignments by post.
Jun. 9th, 2014 11:19 am (UTC)
I'm often struck by how amazingly ignorant of these realities I am, even doing the volunteering. I feel this mix of humility, gratitude (that I haven't *had* to know), and yet a kind of shame, too, because I feel a little bit like if there are people who have to live with these realities--whether it's the families of the people who committed the crimes, or the victims of the crimes, or the employees at the jails, or the prisoners--then at least I should know about those realities. I mean, at least that much of the burden ought to be shared. And yet I have managed to sail through life this long untouched.

I think you're probably right about why you had so few students who were prisoners. What course(s) were you teaching? (How was the prisoner, as a student?)
Jun. 9th, 2014 01:25 pm (UTC)
Prison/non-prison and military/non-military are two of the great apartheids in US life. I wonder how many I others I don't know about, where there are actually whole separate modes of doing the businesses of life? Maybe night work / day work.... And who knows what else.
Jun. 9th, 2014 05:02 pm (UTC)
Yes to both those two--such different worlds. I think more people have a familiarity with nightshift work, just because I do think people do move around a little more between, say, second shift and third shift, and because you get shift work in a number of different sorts of work--and you can have night work that isn't shift work, etc.

But yeah, who knows what else. Migrant work, I think, might be another.
Jun. 9th, 2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
Yes, definitely. Thanks.
Jun. 10th, 2014 04:34 am (UTC)
I think this is probably true in a much smaller sense too--like which families kids come from very much determine what kind of world they live in.
Jun. 11th, 2014 04:26 am (UTC)
I agree.
Jun. 9th, 2014 01:22 pm (UTC)
You are so right about the letters being fragile and strong. Hmmmmmmmm.
Jun. 9th, 2014 05:03 pm (UTC)
I guess when I stop and think about it, *people*, taken as a whole, are both fragile and strong.
Jun. 9th, 2014 07:22 pm (UTC)
Like the stars themselves, like the grass, like a tune....
Jun. 9th, 2014 07:28 pm (UTC)
♥ ♥ ♥
Jun. 9th, 2014 03:34 pm (UTC)
… you have reminded me.
Jun. 9th, 2014 05:04 pm (UTC)
What have I reminded you of?
Jun. 10th, 2014 05:57 am (UTC)
To write to an incarcerated friend.
Jun. 11th, 2014 04:27 am (UTC)
♥ They'll appreciate it.
Jun. 10th, 2014 04:31 am (UTC)
I really miss the days of letter-writing. I still have files of them, and occasionally think it's time to resurrect it, but the only friend whom I have recently had an extended real-letter correspondence with WAS in jail (don't ask why, because it's beyond stupid). Alas.
Jun. 11th, 2014 04:28 am (UTC)
Are you still corresponding with the incarcerated person?
Jun. 10th, 2014 08:11 pm (UTC)
But, Mr. Blue Gloves, I do want to know! *is curious*
Jun. 11th, 2014 04:32 am (UTC)
I was too, but I'm always afraid of pushing too far. The thing that jumped to mind was the anthrax stuff after 9/11, but that seems pretty high tech. So then I thought maybe people trying to send illicit substances?? I should have asked.
Jun. 10th, 2014 09:30 pm (UTC)
These little tidbits from the jail can often be sad, but they are also very eye-opening.

I have to say, though, I really don't understand why people barely write handwritten letters and notes anymore. I mean, yes, digital communication is tons easier and quicker, and I get why it's become the predominant form of communication. I just think there's something so special and magical about getting a real letter from someone, from their own hands, and being able to touch and keep it. :/
Jun. 11th, 2014 04:35 am (UTC)
I think that's it exactly: the ease of the electronic communication makes it win out, even though people like the physicality of paper letters.
Jun. 11th, 2014 03:08 am (UTC)
It is very good of you to volunteer at the prison. A close relative was jailed for almost two years, thousands of miles from us. Friends of my husband who lived an hour's drive away visited him every few weeks...it meant so much to our relative. Sometimes the down and out only need a smile and an encouraging word to feel human again.
Jun. 11th, 2014 04:39 am (UTC)
So glad those friends of your husband were able to do that.

And yeah, I know sometimes a smile means all the difference in the world to *me*, and how much more so if you're in jail.
( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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