So You Want to be a Pen Pal

Greetings and welcome once again to Muninn’s Roost. I have been promising a post concerning pen pals so I will see about doing that for you. I have actually tried a couple of times but I always got caught up on several issues.

I am actually in a bit of a quandary over doing this post. On one hand, I wish to do this for several reasons. (IE, I have been asked to do so, I would like to help people to obtain a good open relationship of some sort with individuals on my side of the bars that would benefit from it, I think it a worthy subject…etc…) but on the other hand, there are people here that I certainly would not want someone I care about to be in contact with for any number of reasons. (There are sexual predators, “con artists” that simply want to use people and have little if any sincere intentions, and there are of course just plain ol’ bad people.)

So I guess I should simply start with a cautionary note… or at least a personal suggestion: know who you’re going to write to before you send your first letter. And know yourself. Figure out what you are willing to put into the friendship beforehand. (Also, you can always decide to modify your commitment as you get to know the person and feel more at ease with your friendship.)

And understand what it is you are doing…if you find someone who is sincere and simply wants to connect with a world that has mostly turned its back on them, they can actually be emotionally damaged in any (or all) of several ways.  (Of course, they will “put up the front” of being big bad convicts…we all do…) But they can have trust issues. If they are in a “lockdown unit” like I am, they can suffer from paranoia, or they might just be pretty insecure in general due to a traumatic family background. (Unlike myself, a well-adjusted and completely normal and rational individual… I can’t believe I just wrote that with a straight face…) So, starting off a relationship of some sort and then just deciding not to write anymore at some point can actually have a profound effect on some of the people in this situation. (I actually started to write to a couple of people not long after I got here and decided to stop due to them just seeming to “live on” with their lives that I no longer seemed to fit into… I did not do the “pen pal thing” for a long time because of that– and if you are wondering, it is the profound loneliness of this world that spurred me to reach out once again.) So keep that in mind. Mail can be pretty important in a situation like this. Every letter I receive from Anna is like a ray of sunshine beaming into a dark and oppressive world… I am not exaggerating…every letter from her makes me smile as few things here do.)

Now… all that said… when Anna first offered to do this blog for me, my first thought was, (and I expressed this to Anna) “Oh! Perhaps I can get more people to write to me using this blog thing!” (I did not even know what a blog was. I had to ask Anna!) But it has grown beyond that. I guess I could say I kind of feel a responsibility toward the blog, and toward my readers.

So, my fist instinct is to say, “I know some people deserving of reading out who are sincere and not predatory or sex offenders.” But that is putting a lot of responsibility on me and I am not real sure I want that. (I do know some good people, though.) So I am just going to use myself as an example of what I would want, and let you good people figure it out for yourselves.

Be honest. With your first letter, let the person know what you are looking for, or at least why you decided to write to them. Whether that’s friendship or Christian outreach or whatnot… be upfront about what you are looking for.

(And be aware, some in this situation have “found God” for the first time and are quite…enthusiastic about sharing their faith. Others, like myself, try to find solace in inner peace and are somewhat private about such matters. And if you are contacting people in here (0r elsewhere) for reasons of Christian outreach, I don’t think there are many who enjoy being “preached at”. Although I would not doubt you can find some who do. That’s not to say you can’t be a religious person yourself– Anna is profoundly religious and I respect her faith greatly– just don’t be a jerk about it. I could go into the psychology of people who “find God” when they are condemned to die but it is not that difficult to figure out so I will spare you to explore that on your own should you wish.)

I personally like to have a picture of the person that I am writing to. It seems to help connect the words to a tangible idea. If I have one I send a picture of myself along with the first letter I mail. (There are pictures available on the prison website, but I dislike those pictures of myself, because I generally do not look too pleased to be here in them. Of course there are people who smile like idiots at whatever camera points in their direction… I don’t quite understand why people would wish to look happy in a “mug shot” but to each their own I suppose…) One of the “pen pals” I had long ago used to send me pictures of himself going just about everywhere. It kind of gave me a sense of living vicariously through his travels. (If you are wondering, he passed away some time ago.) Anna sends me pictures of her cats, so I have gotten to watch her kitten grow up.

And, for the record, I am not very fond of the term “pen pal”. That’s just a personal thing, though– Anna is my friend, pen or not.

As far as how to get connected to someone in a situation like mine… most of the free sites you will come across (like the Death Row Support Project that you will find mentioned on my blog page) are Christian outreach of some sort. However, if you are secular, try not to let that put you off. (I don’t think you have to join their religion to participate.) And going through one of those programs does not necessarily mean you will get an inmate who is a fire-and-brimstone-breathing amateur tent revivalist…although I suppose anything is possible…) There are “professional” websites that charge us money to get on them, and you can better tailor what you seek I suppose. But I personally am glad that Anna did not go that route. I would have never met such a kind and terrific person had she done that.

I have spoken to people on my side of the bars about it, and most (but not all– there are one or two who are an exception) don’t much care to write to people who take on the task of writing to a large number of people who are locked up. I can’t say why this is, as I personally don’t mind. (I look it as being about the same as having friends on the outside. If you have, say, four friends, talking to one does not detract from interacting from another.) Perhaps it is a time thing or a quality of interaction. If someone writes to, say, ten or fifteen people, their interaction with them would be more superficial than if they focused on a friendship over time. I had not really thought about that before; that could change my mind about it now that I think about it– but perhaps it is simply because friendships are so rare in here. I know a lot of people in here but I can’t say I would call any of them true friends. Prison is a dangerous place full of personal agendas…you can never be sure if someone is truly your friend or wants something from you… I know one thing is for certain: I would not want many (if any!) of the people in this place in my home if I were on the outside. In the time I hae been here I can only think of three that I would. I guess that is kind of sad now that I think of it…

Upon going back and re-reading this, I hope I have not made it sound like more trouble than it is worth. I truly do not believe that to be the case. I know of people who have had friendships struck up through the mail, and those friends have been there for them for years. When they speak of their friend it is with kindness and true concern if the situation warrants it. And with some, I have seen their whole demeanor change when they speak of their friend. (Personally I am rather private and like to keep the two worlds of this place and the outside separate but that is just a personal choice.)

So I do truly think that reaching out to someone in this situation can be beneficial to both parties, actually. You can meet someone that you might not have been expecting to. I find people are a lot alike no matter where they are. Their concerns, likes, dislikes, etc. are all pretty much similar. And people in here have the unique experience of having a lot of time on our hands so they consider current affairs, both local and world, a bit more deeply than the average person whose life is very busy. (I do not have a television set, but most here do, and they watch shows like world news and 60 Minutes religiously and then talk about it and reveal interesting– or amusing in its absurdity– insights into what they have seen. My personal avenue for information is NPR, so I can even contribute on occasion.) And, believe it or not, a lot of people on death row have a level of higher-than-average education than you generally find in prison.

And, believe it or not, a lot of people on death row have a level of higher-than-average education than you generally find in prison. And you can get lucky and find some amazing artists as well. (I myself have a meager talent in that area…I wish I had more time to devote to it for drawing things for Anna, but I have no source of income, so I end up having to draw things for people in here to send to their families so I can get soap and shampoo and writing supplies that I need.)

That is a common theme here– those who can draw do so for those who cannot draw but have families that support them financially. (The competition can be fierce!) But a few here like the flowers and some other things I draw, so I can get a few commissary items usually…but I digress… as I was saying, I do believe developing a relationship with someone in the situation I find myself in can be to the benefit of both parties. I simply advise some measure of caution be employed…at least until you know the person well enough to know who it is you’re writing to. Like any other friendship, it can evolve and expand over time.

I hope I have not been boring or too general, but to be honest it comes down to that pesky “responsibility” thing. I don’t want people to think it’s all party balloons and whizz-poppers, because the truth is you can get a bad setup that just does not “fit” with your expectations in any number of ways. But, on the upside, there are more where that came from so you can always try again. (If you feel something is not working out for whatever reason, it is best to move on as quickly as you can, before any attachments are formed.) And you may just find something totally unexpected that enhances and enriches your life in ways you did not expect.

Well, there is your post on pen pals. I hope at least some of you find it helpful. Don’t know what the next post might be yet. (Crazy crap from in here or my life prior to this malignant fit of insanity called prison.) But I promise to try to make it interesting, in any case.

Bye for now…and remember, without the wonderfulness that is Anna, you would not be reading any of this. Thank you, my friend!




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