August 04
♪♫•**•.¸♥¸.•*¨*•♪♪♫•**•.¸¸♥ I like cheese, wine, art openings, art shoes, art installations, poetry, single malt scotch, the sublime if I can define it, the ridiculous whenever i can find it, food in general, ethnographic history ie OPS ie Other People's Stories.


Aim's Links

No links in this category.
APRIL 4, 2011 1:33PM

On Prison and the Lost Art of Writing Letters

Rate: 23 Flag

My best friend has been in jail since Feb. 5th. Soon, she will be transferred to prison. She knows what she did, and knows she got a pretty light sentence. I don’t defend what she did – although I will say it was a non-violent crime and…I support the legalization of marijuana.

We’ve talked on the phone twice – jail, and I assume prison, make sure that prisoners have to buy phone cards from the “commissary”, which means they can charge about $2.00 per minute. So our calls are brief and rushed and filled with quick exchanges of information, and a lot of laughter.

How strange, the laughter? But that’s who we are – she can make me laugh harder than anyone in the world, and that’s saying something since I seem to collect highly amusing friends. Everyone who knows us understands that we will start cracking up the minute we’re in a room together. Even we don’t always know what the hell is so funny – but the world is hilarious when we are together.

We’ve had this joke forever – which might not be explainable, but I’m gonna try – where we try to outdo each other with superlative declarations of love. Example: “If all the leaves on every tree fell to the ground and someone counted them that would not add up to one tenth of my love for you.” We’ve been trying to trump each other for years.

So, now she is in jail, about to go to prison, and we talk for six minutes every week. Not enough at all. She has discovered the lost art of writing letters, and I have too.

The first letter I got from her had some sobering details, but still, I was crying with laughter, and maybe a few other tears, by her descriptions of jail. She’s tiny – five feet tall and about 110 pounds – and she’s telling me how she does her cowardly lion act when things get tough: “Put ‘em up! Put ‘em up!”. She had a friend who just got transferred, but when she was there they would break into the “Beat It” dance routine to break up the tension.

Here’s a quote: “ I’m over the romance novels. I almost read Danielle Steele the other day, and thank god I found something even worse.”

This is how I know she will survive. When I found out she was in jail, and why, I moved right into crisis mode. That’s my training, and I can go from inert to highly alert and organized in 30 seconds. I called our mutual friends who would want to know, and we now have a “letter tree” going on. Most of us write every other day, even if it’s just postcards – the assumption being that if she “sees” us every day, she will emerge as intact as one can hope for from such a brutal experience.

I also called the jail and the prison – that’s my way of being informed and proactive – and the guard at the prison who answered the phone was very nice and helpful. Shocker! Nice enough that he warned me that, upon transfer, all prisoners are put on 23 hour lockdown for 7-10 days and then released into the general population.  My friend knows this, and is afraid. She could be transferred at any moment – the middle of the night – and the only way we will know is when she gets through that “adjustment” period.

I wonder whether the jail would forward letters – I’m assuming that’s not on the priority list – so I keep sending letters and postcards, often with those ridiculous superlatives or some other longstanding idiotic joke we have kept going for 23 years.

In this whole experience, well, I have the easy job. I can’t do much more to help or protect her, even if I wasn’t thousands of miles away. It takes months to get on a visitors list in prison, and with time served she could be out by January. (Her sentence, through a plea bargain, is 18 months).

But what I have found – and she has found – is this almost lost art that we used to practice. I’ve known her for 23 years – we basically were doing cave paintings and running away from dinosaurs together! We DID write to each other in the past, when we didn’t live together. No email, no cell phones – just a good old fashioned letter. It’s horrible that this skill is now coming back to us because she’s, well, in jail and going to prison, but it reminds me of how lovely it always is to get something in the mail.

For my friend it is a lifeline. It is something to remind her how much she is loved and treasured. It might be something she will read again and again, just to reassure herself that she is still real. That if all the tulips in Holland were counted one by one and someone fell down and then the wind blew the blades of a windmill – that wind and those tulips would be like my love for her.

Your tags:


Enter the amount, and click "Tip" to submit!
Recipient's email address:
Personal message (optional):

Your email address:


Type your comment below:
I'm a big fan of letter writing. It slows you down and gives you time to think. At its best it's an art form and something to be treasured.
I understand these letters so well. Prison is one way to make letter writing a must...I draw cards for my son in which I write my letters to him. They inform him of what I think is funny or important or silly. I call them "Prison Breaks". He loves them and is quite popular with the other inmates come mail call...I have a following for my colorful, upbeat cards!
I had a friend who was in prison and I was shocked how much was censored. Then I had many young man order roleplaying game book and there was no way they were allowed into the prisons. Third party sellers on Amazon were not allowed to ship books but Amazon was.

So many rules about writing and books but I am so glad she has you.
So glad.
rated with hugs
I loved reading this, and you sound like a great best friend. I just discovered a cache of old letters written to me from my childhood friends and am astounded at how much we conveyed of ourselves in that lovely, tactile, REAL art of communication. Well worth resurrecting, aim.
I hope there is a way to save these letters and the exaggerated love declarations. I know how important that can be to someone locked up. This society is ridiculous with its archaic prison system. Too many are locked out of life for nothing. I hope she gets an early parole. Thank you for this post.
Just a clarification on my earlier comment: I didn't mean I loved reading about your friend being in jail, but how you describe your friendship. (I figured you knew that, but just in case :)
...doing cave paintings and running away from dinosaurs together! Lovely...
Sarah: Me too! Although I rely on email way too much these days. I'll have to write more about how writing letters shaped my life - maybe an open call? Hope you write one too!

Buffy: I LOVE that. I love your drawings and how you fill the canvas with so many great details. it is lovely to know that mail call can be fun...I thought about you, and others, who are parents with children in role is much easier, and I adore you for allowing me to know your son when you write about him. You've inspired me to draw something ridiculous for my friends amusement - i have no talent, but stick figures are always funny.

Linda: I, too, was shocked at the book policy, especialy since I used to work with a "books to prisoners" group. It's another way to profit from incarceration, I suspect. My friend loves lavender, and I almost sprinkled a few lavender droppings into the envelope before going "DUH!" I R stupid at times. I am really appalled by what she is going through in jail - 3 hours a week of "outside" and her uniform is washed once a week. And she's in with 40 other women, so it gets skanky. Thanks so much, always for your hugs. I'm saving them all for when I need them, and i might send a few to my friend.

Thanks dirndl - Yes, I got it the first time, but how sweet of you to clarify! I am already telling her we will write a book about this someday soon. Also, I have a large plastic container filled with old letters...once a year i go through it just to remember. I'm a fan of letters, for sure!

Thank you Zanelle! I hope she can save things, or put the postcards up on a wall, or something. She was on probation (DUI) when she was arrested, and the charges were serious enough for her to face five years. (possesion with intent to distribute, etc.) What I have learned in my minor dealings is what I always knew - prison is a corporation, and works for profit. All I can do is keep reminding her that I am here, every day, until she is released.
She's going to a maximum security facility where someone died from neglect - left out in the blazing heat -107 degrees - and basically burned to death. The prison was sued. That's where she's going. It breaks my heart.

Thanks Carol! Hopefully we will be doing that again in 2012! I know this is going to change her - I just hope that change can be SOMEWHAT for the better. I love her just the way she is, and will love her no matter what. But I know she will be a lot tougher and probably less trusting when she gets out.
Let's hope we can still laugh in a corner again?

Thanks so much, everyone, for your kind comments.
Sorry that your friend is locked up and that is so different than the outside world. Many would lose their sense of humor while there I imagine and it's to her credit and yours that you can keep the humor rolling under these circumstances. While email has slightly resurrected the lost art of letter writing there is nothing like the tangible paper letter version!
I love writing letters and have huge plastic bins from Target filled with correspondences from friends - along with copies of my letters to them - going back to the early 1970's.

If our house were to ever (God forbid!) catch on fire, next to the animals and people, I would save my journals and those boxes of letters. The artwork I can do again, but those letters capture a pair of hearts in the cockeyed warp of time. They cannot be replaced.

On Valentine's Day, my son - who is also in prison - went into "the hole" for thirty days. I could barely breathe for that month, but what kept us both from disintegrating into madness from the whole nightmare were the letters we wrote back and forth daily. I'd send him anything: blogs, crossword puzzles copied from the daily paper, photographs, and, of course, letters. When he was released back into the general population on St. Patrick's Day, he wrote and said, "Thank you for going into the hole with me, Mom. It saved my sanity." Little did he realize it saved mine, too.

Those letters between us were more than letters. They were two-way lifelines and worth more than anything I own.

God bless you for not abandoning your friend, Aim. She'll need your words now more than ever and strangely enough, you'll probably come to cherish hers more than you can imagine.
Thanks Larry: It is odd getting the phone calls - I'm a notorious screener, and these come in from Los Angeles (far away from where she actually is). Once I figured that part out, well, then you accept the call and that it will be screened. For some reason that is far too difficult to explain she calls me "Ralph" - and I ususally reply by calling her "Ralph". See? I do not know why this is so funny, but we immediately start giggling.
She is "looking forward to prison" just to get out of jail - she hasn't seen the sun in months, really, and in prison she'll have access to the yard, a library, exercise, trade classes, a .38 cent an hour job, we assume.
BUT...I have read enough about this prison to know she is going to also , likely, be harrassed and possibly attacked. The 7-10 days of no contact scare both of us. What do they produce in that time frame? Thank you for your kind would love her if you met her. She really didn't do anything that wrong, in the realm of wrong things. But there you go.
Susan: Dear Susan. I was thinking of you and Buffy and a few others when I wrote this. I won't compare my experience to yours, although I am in touch with my friends parents who are nice as can be but think prayer is the answer.
What an amazing story of your sons redemption from the horror of that isolation through constant communication. I can't imagine - I feel like I could say it a million times. I just can't.
My friend WILL be loved back to life with all of our strength and energy - as you are doing for your son. As much as I ache for her, it is not the same as your pain, and I know that, truly.
Your artwork is extraordinary, so I love that you would save words above artwork. I, too, have the giant plastic bin filled with most of the letters i have ever received. Sometimes I go through it and send letters back to people - a reminder of themselves 20 years ago.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting - you were in my thoughts as i wrote this.
Wow! What a terrific friend you are! I have relationships that go back 30 and 40 years, those are the friendships that mean the most. I miss letter writing and need to give it a go!
I hope your friend will be ok. I don't believe most people in prison belong there. I'm reading a book about the founding of Australia as a penal colony. There were over 200 hanging offenses at the time in England. We've done something similar, criminalizing everything, though without the hanging. Your friend is lucky to have you and I'm sure your declarations of an immense variety and multitude of love will sustain her. Women's prisons are not as horrible as the men's, and there is much less chance that she will be attacked. She sounds like someone who will easily make friends. Women tend to look for relationships in prison and she could be helpful to other women since she undoubtedly has superior skills. An older woman who would not trigger anyone's gang girl radar would probably be safer.
inked love
these bytes can disappear, whims of technology and all that
but paper holds, breathes, we leave organic and soul bits of us in them, a record of an emotional life
Loving your last lines, what a strong finish, a bit to savor like good wine or chocolate. To be in such a bleak place and receive such a letter will be as if tulip petals have arrived. To have a friend like you, she must be special indeed.
Tragedy brings out the comedy in some. Me, for example. So I know where you're coming from. Letter writing is a lost art and I'm just now coming to understand what it might mean in terms of relationships, maintaining and creating. I'm sure she thanks you for being there, hanging tough.
HA! She called me tonight! The requisite six minutes - but they have had the decency to let her know when she will be transferred. Early Thursday - probably the middle of the night. So she might call again, but basically we know the next time we speak is going to be very different.

pastvoices: Thanks! Go through those letters and send some back - people are so delighted to have their words returned.

Sirenita: great advice and such a great outlook. You're right - she already rules the roost as the smartest and funniest person. I have always been against the prison industrial complex. prisons are run for profit. She'll be ok, but it is still appalling that an industry is built on low level drug dealers creating jobs for prisons. (And she wasn't dealing, but whatever.) The war on drugs is a war on people. My friend is smart, caucasion and female. I am outraged that most black men go to jail/prison before they go to college.

Thanks vanessa: I just found out she can't take anything with her when she is tranferred - but I have sent her poems knowing they exist because she has seen them. Thank you so much for your beautiful words.

rita: You would LOVE her. Thanks so much...she is like all the tulips. Today I told her that every day when I look up at the sky and feel the sun I yell out her name. Just so she gets it. BTW: If you are ever incarcerated i will happily send you poems...

Thank you bellwether - She WILL be fine because i WILL it to be so! or something along those lines. I get what you're saying - I crack up at funerals and then pretend that I'm crying.
She was so funny tonight. But there's a big note of sobriety and fear as well. One thing she said was: "Jail is like living in your head 24 hours a day. I know now that's why I drank so much. But it sucks, because there are no conclusions from a cell."
Thanks so much for reading and hearing this story.

Eventually it will have a good ending.

Thanks so much to each and all of you.
Alison, Been trying to get over here. OS has been excruciatingly slow.
Remember The Letter by the Boxtops? I love handwriting and letter and wish you and your friend the best in your communications.

And see my comment on my post. I'll keep the carriage ready.
A grand post to the art of true friendship and letter writing. Write, write and write, I know from experience how important those letters are and the sinking feeling of the heart when they do not arrive.
How lucky she is to have a friend like you. Read with envy for such loyalty, and rated.
Thanks Scarlett - I will meet you there and please know I am terrified of heights, so I'll probably be a mess! No talking me down from the ledge since I'll be quivering in the corner. And yes, I love that song.

Scylla! So GRAND to see you. I know you know how important letters are. And I loathe what is happening to soldiers just as much as I loathe the prison industry. When she gets transferred she's basically in her underpants with her papers - she can't take anything with her. So my words to her are in the ether, and that's fine - but no toothbrush? She is experiencing things i truly cannot imagine - just as I can never understand the military for foot soldiers.

Snippy: Thank you. it's not like I have a choice - I HAVE to do this, to make sure she gets out intact. She is the sweetest little thing - you kind of want to toss her around like a bean bag, she's so tiny. We are Laurel and Hardy.
Thank you so much for such lovely words, and please know if you are ever jailed I will write you poems! Grammatically incorrrect ones, but just to make the time go by for you!
Aim- I have lots of recent, decent paperbacks that I have read and can donate. Can they go directly to her? Orto her via you? You know how to reach me.

I'd offer to get into a letter-writing group (I have not read comments but surely you are hearing from some about that) but I cannot promise anything. I can promise some good books though, if only to the prison library. XO
The real crime is the War On Drugs. But it's good that you and your friend can find beauty in such an ugly situation.
I love the idea of the letter tree. I'm sure those cards and letters help pass the time for your friend. I wrote a post about letter writing here awhile back and have been working on writing more handwritten letters. Here it is if youa re interested:

I wrote a letter to a friend in jail once and weeks later it was returned to me with a rubber stamp mark on the envelope that said "contraband"--apparantly my return adress label was the contraband-drugs could be on it which a prisoner could then lick for a high. Wow. Learn something everyday!
Dude . . . you are one helluva friend, which is to say, the best kind of friend to have. I am glad to read the update on your friend, and will add my prayers to yours for her safety and sanity . . .
Dear kellylark: I'll let you know about donations, but prisoners cannot receive books unless they are from Amazon. HMMM...sounds convenient for both for profit businesses. She's getting transferred so soon that I am not bothering to send her books, especially since she can't take anything with her. I'll let you know how to donate - and thanks for being such a lovely friend.

Patrick: I agree! The War on Drugs is a War on people. OK, she fucked up, but she is going to a serious prison for a completely non-violent crime. I have to support her, y'know? And she is going to be ok, and accepts that she broke the law. But, really? She did nothing that would possibly hurt anyone. And, as I said abouve, the war on drugs is also a war on people of color, especially black men. I remain disgusted.

lschmoopie: Ha ha! The first letter i wrote her got returned for no reason. Maybe it was the heroin i put on the stamp - just kidding. I could not figure it out, but sent it again and it went through. Thansk for your comment and support. It means so much, and I will check out that link!
owl, owl, would love her so much, as would your family. She's just one of those people who is so charming and hilariously funny that you put her right into your heart.
I hope that serves her well in prison. So far, so good - the tough women seem charmed by her ability to deflect conflict. And her cowardly lion act is probably really apropos - yes, she is in with some women who are charged with violent crimes, but maybe she has the ability to make them feel, well, like they don't have to attack or defend themselves.
"put 'em up! put 'em up!"
As you know, I'm stubborn about anything that implies I can't make it happen. I will make sure that she is released with all the love and dignity she deserves.
And if she gives me info about other prisoners, I will advocate for them.
She is ACTUALLY funnier than I am...we will all meet sometime soon. Because I say so:)
Ah, letters are such precious things. I wish the few people I feel genuinely wronged by would know this and send a letter to me, because it makes the world of difference. An email - and certainly not an effin' text - does NOT cut it.

As for your friend in prison on weed charges, what a crying, fucking change. Laws in this land are prehistoric and need to be changed asap. I'm working on it, on my end, in the small ways I can. (I work for - lots of legal force behind that project.) A waste of our money and a needlessly traumatizing and life-changing experience. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. Wish your friend well for me and tell her, we're working on it.

(Oh and I responded to your Kriss/Keagy comment!)
The postcards... You could not have known how important they were going to be...
This post touches me deeply. You understand the art of letter writing and the art of friendship. And the humor you share is a lifeline...
I will be thinking of her.~r
I still go to my mailbox hoping I might get some fat envelope with a nice, meaty letter inside. I send them, but am still waiting for mine.

Great piece!
"But, really? She did nothing that would possibly hurt anyone. And, as I said abouve, the war on drugs is also a war on people of color, especially black men. I remain disgusted."

And there you have it. The perfect illustration of why the prison industrial complex and the elitist shitheels profiting by it, absolutely thrive.

I'm sure "disgusted" makes you feel better, but why aren't you OUTRAGED? Seriously.

I want to say more, but I'm too disgusted.
That was beautiful. It gave me chills. I'm so sorry for your friend and for you.
That was beautiful. It gave me chills. I'm so sorry for your friend and for you.