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Writers in Prison

A friend’s son is in prison. It’s been a heartbreaking saga spanning several years. The most recent sentence of 18 years is considered outrageous by some, lenient by others. Bottom line: this still young barely educated man is in jail for a good long while. He’s adapted to his life there and has started looking after himself in a way he never could in the outside world; he’s an addict.

We were walking along the beach when my friend told me about his twice-monthly visits to the prison. He seemed relieved to be telling the story to someone who would not judge his parenting harshly. Something went badly wrong with this child but that is not the point now; it’s in the past. My friend loves his son and continues to do his best to care for him. He is still hopeful he will emerge from prison clean of drugs and alcohol, with a nurtured humanity, remorse for his crimes, a promise of restitution to his victims, and an education. In the circumstances, it seems unlikely. There is no school, no library, no access to computers, no AA, no counseling in this particular state prison. Despite this, his son is becoming an autodidact, requesting about four books a month and not just trash. (He’s reading Malcolm Galdwell at the moment.) Books can only be sent via amazon; no wrapped parcels from home are accepted. One can only wonder what inmates do if there are no people in their lives who have money or access to computers.

When we got back to the house, my friend showed me a letter he had received from his son that week. It was handwritten on lined paper, about three pages long, the envelope stamped with the prison seal. It was well written, heartfelt: daily routines, food, work-outs, observations and, to my friend’s surprise, news of an application to a local college to get a degree. But what if he was not accepted? Would the young man be able to tolerate the disappointment? Move forward? Continue to make his disciplined efforts at self-improvement? Or would he be crushed and give up.

Probably the latter, I thought. And then I had an idea: American Pen has a prison writers program. http://www.pen.org/page.php/prmID/152. A mentor from the program could help his son sustain his efforts as a writer and an autodidact over a period of years.

According to the United States Department of Justice website there are more than two million prisoners now being held in federal or state prisons or in local jails – an increase of 0.8% from year end 2007. This is an enormous figure for an industrialized western nation. The culture of some of our prisons is enlightened, others are Dickensian. My friend’s son is in a Dickensian prison where the guards are constantly punitive and the warden is unreachable.

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