I have a friend named Tom. He is my pen pal. We met a couple of years ago, and literally the next week, he was carted off to prison. Our mutual friends have kept contact with him and I made the decision to have correspondence with him while he serves out his sentence.
Prison is a horrible place. I've read quite a bit about it, and watched documentaries and the like. Seriously, it's probably one of the most soul-crushing institutions on the planet. You are forced onto a schedule, robbed of individualism and self-expression, stripped of personal possessions, made to eat sub-par food, sleep in discomfort, and plagued with torturous boredom. And while some much needed care, counseling and rehabilitation is available for prisoners, there is very little that is positive about the experience. Most of the time.
Tom's experience sounds surprisingly positive compared to all that I've read. He's lost weight, he is in therapy (and it's helping him tremendously), he has better nutrition, he is exercising, and he's dry. In his letters he describes a tragically boring day and a very regular schedule, but he has managed to stay positive and deal well with his sentence.
I write to him because I have learned how lonely incarceration can be. If there is one thing I took away from all my reading it's that letters from outside can be a tremendous help to the prisoner. Letters help to focus prisoners on something outside the walls and keep them from getting bogged down by the loneliness and monotony of their incarceration.
The cruelty of incarceration really struck a chord with me. After my research, I wanted to reach out and help someone, but the thought of sending letters to a complete stranger was slightly unnerving to me. Then I thought of Tom, a man I barely knew, and with whom I have many mutual friends. I asked them about him when they'd receive letters about how he was doing and got fairly regular reports on his status. Finally, I decided I would just start asking him myself! I got his address from friends and sent him a letter.
He was very happy to receive it and we've been corresponding since October! It's been great to get to know him through his letters, and I'm very happy to know that he enjoys talking to me too.
I guess the point of this post is to encourage anyone reading it to have compassion for those we have locked away in prisons. And also to encourage writing to those people during their stay there. Your letters will be a great source of relief for them.
We punish criminals because what they do makes us angry. So angry that we take everything away from them and keep them in a pen under the watchful eyes of authoritarian men and women with guns. Victims of crime usually push for the longest sentence possible as a means of assuaging their anger toward the person who wronged them. And they are completely justified in doing so. Far be it from me to condemn the anger of any victim of crime. But I have known prisoners, and I know the hardships of being locked up.
Tom isn't the first prisoner I've known. I knew another guy, Dan, who had a horrible time in jail. He received no help for his emotional problems and minimal rehabilitation. He took his own life a couple of years after his release. His punishment turned out to be death, and all he did was steal a car and a credit card and go on an underaged binge.
I firmly believe that people need to be treated with compassion. No matter how angry they make us, we need to treat people fairly. Volatile behavior is a symptom of a bigger problem. Crime is a symptom of a broken legal/political system, and people moved to crime have very real reasons for committing them. Just as it is right for the victim to be angry, it is right for the criminal to be met with compassion.
So many crimes are the result of people being unable to care for themselves. We punish the poor, the homeless, the hungry, the mentally ill, the sick, and the elderly for being victims of circumstance. We punish the violent because they hurt us and make us uncomfortable. And they are locked away because it is more convenient for us (as a culture) to let them rot in a cell than to actually take the steps needed to solve their problems. I'm not an idealist that believes that everyone can be rehabilitated, but I do believe that those who can't be rehabilitated are fewer in truth than statistics say.
I hope that humans as a civilization will find more effective ways to deal with criminals in the future. Ways that champion compassion and love instead of punishment and hate. And I hope my friend Tom comes out okay. And in the interim, I'll keep sending him letters.