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.

  1. Cindy Zelman says:

    Hi Erika,

    That was a great blog entry, particularly the questions you raise about why you cannot choose to be friends with these prisoners after they get out of prison; why is that not a freedom we are allowed, or one that THEY are allowed – if they’ve paid their dues, so to speak.

    You do make me curious as to what was in that man’s letter than so moved you. After all the time you’ve been volunteering in this capacity, I know it’s not the first time you’ve been moved. I also know that you don’t always express being moved to this degree.

    Are you comfortable sharing any of the details of what he said that moved you so?

    If you are, I would love to hear.

    Take care,


    • islandwriter says:

      Cindy, thanks for reading and commenting. I don’t know if I can speak to why this letter/story over some of the others moved me so. Perhaps enough stories have built up in my psyche that it doesn’t take much at times to push me into a sort of melancholy place about humanity. In the blog entries I always try to be respectful of the guys’ privacy, which means I do cut out some specific details. In this case, it was really grasping what was “normal” for this man. His abusive grandfather buying him beer before he was 10. The fact that stealing was just how he was raised. That violence was taught to him from such a young age it wasn’t until he was incarcerated this time that he has begun to wonder if walking away can also be a sign of strength. Perhaps I was so moved because I came to see my own “privelage” even more sharply. I might have complaints about my childhood, but it doesn’t even compare to what some others face. And that fact just seems so terribly unfair, random and without reason (even if I try to believe in the adage “all things for a reason”).

      Always happy to talk further with you about these things, as you know.


  2. RantWoman says:

    Do you know anyone who volunteers with Alternatives to Violence or any of the prison chaplaincy programs? Do you know other people who have taught in prison? Would you feel comfortable talking to them about their experiences with contacts after inmates are released or aout interaction with DoC regulations?

    There are really, really good reasons I think for the DoC regulations. However, other people with volunteer experience might be able to suggest options that would provide channels to nurture this person’s writing without you running afoul of DoC regulations yourself either while he is incarcerated or afterward.

    Do you have any kind of a support committee that can help you decide whether contact after release is worth the issues that arise dealing with DoC regulations?

    • islandwriter says:

      Hi. Thanks for commenting. These are good suggestions. I work with a woman who has been going up to the prison for over a decade, so I can turn to her for guidance. And I know that the DOC implements its rules for reasons that are aimed to put volunteer safety above all else, which I do understand. The complexities of how to support rehabilition without forming a “true” friendship in some cases just makes me sad sometimes. But you are right, the best resource for situations like these are those who have also faced them. I appreciate the reminder.

      All the best,

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