Archive for October, 2010

Be careful what you ask for–that’s what I found myself thinking after reading a letter from one of the guys in our program last night. I had responded to a piece he had written about a terrible fight he had been in that nearly cost him his life. I had questions about why he chose to pursue the fight when there was obviously ample opportunity to walk away? And why carry the violence to such a level that he ended up in the hospital, barely alive? He had written the facts, but not the emotion of the experience and I pressed him to tell me more.

His response was full of details about his childhood and family that nearly brought me to tears. I know full well he is not the only person with a heartbreaking childhood story. And I also now that many people overcome their childhoods without resorting to violent or criminal behavior. But I must say, by the time I finished reading his letter all I could think was, where else could he have possibly have ended up besides prison? Some of us are raised to believe we can be anything. Our parents nurture our talents, encourage our successes. Some of us are raised by uncles who put beer in our baby bottles and grandfathers who turn us into alcoholics by the time we are thirteen.

At the end of his letter he asked me to respond to three questions. I think most writers, in particular, will find these familiar:

Do you really think I have what it takes to be a writer?
Do you really think my story is interesting enough to tell?
When this is over, will do you think we can still be friends?

Okay, well, maybe the last one doesn’t specifically relate to writing and writers, but it certainly highlights this man’s desperate need for connection. Unfortunately, the question of friendship is a tough one for volunteers. The prison has strict rules about our relationships with the inmates. Basically, we can relate to them only as students in our program. We can not write to them outside of the program (a rule I don’t quite full grasp the reasoning behind) and we can’t develop relationships with them once they are released unless we tell the DOC (and telling the DOC anything can be a double edged sword because you never really know what side they’ll come down on).

I would be friends with some of the men in our group…even after their release. I would trust them to contact me, to have my phone number, to meet for coffee. Others, perhaps not. But isn’t that how life is? We don’t want to be friends with everyone we meet. Regardless, it is difficult to tell this man that I can be his “writing friend” while he’s incarcerated and that’s about it. This makes me feel as if I’m forced to abide the doctrine that states once a criminal, always a criminal. Something I simply do not believe. If the DOC, society and prison volunteers claim to be working toward the supposed rehabilitation of these men, and they work to achieve said rehabilitation, then how is it their reward is one of continued shame and isolation? It literally makes my stomach sick at times.

The good news is this man does have what it takes to be a writer. Like all of us, he has a long ways to go to perfect his craft, but he is motivated and determined. His story is more than compelling. And I truly believe writing it will help him to succeed upon his release. So that’s what I told him. Keep writing. Tell me how I can help, given the counter-productive restrictions set upon our relationship.