Every prisoner is a person.
We forget this, even though we live in a country that incarcerates more people than any other in the world. We forget about all the souls locked away in prison cells. Out of sight out of mind.
All that’s left is the stigma.
Still, some prisoners do try to improve themselves—to repent in the eyes of society and their own conscience. And some do it whether they are getting out or not.
This thought has always compelled me about people. In the most trying conditions—during incarceration, for example, or terminal illness and massive financial setbacks—people still find ways to seek balance. To better themselves.
Some. Not all.
I make that distinction because sometimes I’m not sure what I would do myself. If I’m being perfectly honest, when I’ve faced adversity it has often been the strong compulsion to flee that first occurred to me, not courage.
When adversity comes, will I flee, or will I press on?
It was this unanswered question that led me on a winding path to the PEN Prison Writing Mentor Program.
Reflections from the Juvenile Court Book Club
In March 2016, I emailed PEN America about joining the Prison Writing Mentor Program. At the time, I was actively publishing short stories and looking for a way to give back.
A reply soon arrived:
The PEN Prison Writing Mentor Program is full.
What prompted me to contact PEN was an experience I had at the Juvenile Court Book Club. While listening to a handful of young prisoners discuss “Salvage the Bones” by Jesmyn Ward, I realized something:
Some of these kids are never getting out.
They’ll turn eighteen and be transferred to some state or federal penitentiary where they’ll spend the rest of their days.
Some of those kids were fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old. Most came from tough neighborhoods where their crimes fit the norm. A few reflected openly that, were they to be released, it would be difficult not to fall back in with the crowds they used to run with.
Recidivism takes on a whole new meaning from the mouths of babes.
Ultimately, I volunteered at the Juvenile Court Book Club with the hope of contributing the one thing I feel somewhat confident contributing: literacy. Reading and writing. Thinking critically and discussing literature, things I love to do but don’t do enough of.
Unfortunately, circumstances prevented me from continuing to attend these discussions. So, I thought: why not exchange letters with a prisoner?
That I can do from anywhere.
My experience with the PEN Prison Writing Mentor Program
Two years later, after I had long forgotten about the PEN Prison Writing Mentor Program, I received an unexpected email from PEN America:
You’re in, assuming you’d still like to participate.
Of course, I jumped at the opportunity, and within a few weeks I received my first correspondence from Sonja*, an inmate at a Missouri state correctional facility:
A manila envelope.
There I stood in the San Diego sunlight—the free San Diego sunlight—holding an envelope that had originated in a Missouri correctional facility some seventeen hundred miles away. It felt important and weighty.
What happened next, though, was delay and deferment. I put that envelope on my shelf and stared at it for a week. When I finally sat down to open it, I found a typewritten short story accompanied by a handwritten note.
I read the short story.
I marked it up without (I hope) being too heavy-handed.
Then I sat down and wrote a response on my electric typewriter.
A couple weeks later, I received another response, and my correspondence with Sonja continues to this day.
A brief reflection
What is Sonja in prison for? I don’t know. It hasn’t come up and it likely won’t. After three correspondences, I only know that she writes stories and wants to improve her craft.
Just like me.
Her writing is spare, humorous, and straightforward. I offer guidance where I can, suggestions and edits where appropriate. Often, I feel I’m learning as much about myself as Sonja is about her short story writing.
This kind of exchange is precisely why I joined the PEN Prison Writing Mentor Program.
That, and the opportunity to make a real connection with a system I rarely come in contact with, but hear a lot about.
Chillicothe Correctional Center.
Boonville Correctional Center.
Moberly. Farmerly. Tipton.
This is just a sampling of a few names from the first page of Google results for Missouri correctional facilities.
To a layperson like me, it can seem like more of a marketplace than a corrections system. A source of headlines, a topic of heated debate for television pundits. Mandatory minimums. Institutionalization. Privatization.
The PEN Prison Writing Mentor Program is way to cut through this noise and do something real—to connect with the prison system in a meaningful way through the craft of writing.
Greetings, Sonja. I look forward to our continued correspondence.
Because every prisoner is a person. And every person is a writer, whether they know it or not.
* I am using a fictitious name to avoid compromising the anonymity of my mentee.