My Prison Penpal

You’ve either bleated it yourself or heard someone else lament: Where’d all the good mail go? 

These days it’s bills, local pollie pamphlets, a notable birthday invitation every now and then and maybe a plumber magnet. Here’s a capital idea for you: Pen pals, baby, pen pals. And I’ll get more specific than that. When are you going to get the opportunity to read a thoughtful, handwritten letter from someone across the other side of the world, for whom speaking to new people is a remote luxury – someone who is potentially utterly different to you? And what if that letter turns into a long exchange of rewarding correspondence for the both of you?

A few years ago while researching a uni web design assignment , I randomly came across an American website which listed ads from people who were incarcerated and seeking a pen pal. There are a bunch of these sites on the net, but this one bragged itself as the largest. You could search for inmates based on gender, age, location, or their sentence (in case you particularly wanted to write to someone on death row, or perhaps wanted to be assured your pen pal wouldn’t be released any time soon and come for an impromptu holiday at your place. Conversely, many inmates were looking for romantic partners and so a release date in the near future was a superfine advantage).

I chose a young man who was in his early 20s like me. He hoped to hear from absolutely anyone, regardless of age, gender or any other descriptor, who liked to talk about books and music. I shall call him Marc. In his photo he wore huge baggy jeans and a tent of a white t-shirt, and was crouching with his hands clasped. He looked impossibly out of his depth, like a hopeful little Eminem. 

He had been convicted of manslaughter at age 14, had been incarcerated for several years already and wasn’t to be released until at least after 2030. He was in ‘Angola’, the Louisiana State Penitentiary, which is the largest maximum security prison in the States. 

In my letter I explained the weird linkage that led me to his ad, and he was stoked. One of the first things he wrote was “I guess the magnitude of the web is so expansive, nothing is hard to locate.” It turned out to be a pretty ironic statement.

Marc was a jokey, philosophical guy who studded his sentences with smiley faces. He spent 23 hours a day in a one-man cell. He had been in ‘population’ (the main prison community) a month before, but was transferred to the disciplinary lockdown Camp J after a fight with a guard. When he was in population he worked the fields in the massive 18,000 acre site on which the prison buildings are located, picking cotton with a sack over his shoulder or cutting grass with a swing blade. Sometimes the men would work up to 14 hours a day. For this, he and his fellow prisoners were paid 4 cents an hour. 

If that sounds backwards, it’s because it’s almost exactly the same sort of labour as that which slaves were put to when Angola was a plantation in the 1830s. (Except the slaves, of course, weren’t paid at all). To this day Angola’s farming operations are still extraordinarily similar to the 1870s and 1880s; prisoners work in the fields and guards on horseback keep watch. In 2010, the current warden Burl Cain told a Guardian reporter: “You’ve got to keep the inmates working all day so they’re tired at night.”

Whatever you might think of prisoners and the way they should be treated or allowed to live behind those bars, I’ve never had a more totally surprising and edifying written exchange with a person than my Angola pen pal. He never refused to answer my dumb questions or explain situations that for him were day-to-day. “I like to be up front,” he wrote early on. “I don’t see the point in any other way, considering in here every aspect of my life is exposed. Feel free to ask whatever you want to know about me or this elegant place I unfortunately call home. :)”.

Through him I learned about ‘tower freaks’—male prisoners who will use their yard time to freely jerk off if they see that the guard in the lookout tower is female—and that the few televisions in the rec rooms were permanently turned to ‘The Angola Station’, which played educational programs aimed at primary school children. He told me that sometimes straight inmates consented to receiving head from a punk (a gay inmate), in exchange for cigarettes or other valuable items. 

After a while I asked Marc about the circumstances of his crime, and he told me that he’d stabbed a fellow 14 year old during a group fight involving several boys. The deceased kid’s parents entreated the judge to consider downgrading Marc’s crime from murder to manslaughter, because they did not want him to get Life. The judge acquiesced.

One time Marc apologised for being the topic of an argument between my sister and I, saying it was “understandable” she was concerned I was writing to a convicted stranger. “There certainly are some bad and crazy folks in here,” he wrote. He tried to imagine what it would be like to experience a hot Christmas, and asked if Australia was called ‘Down Under’ because some people lived underground, where the opals were. 

He told me all about his beloved aunts, about Louisiana and the scrapes he’d had with the various deadly fauna which live in its swamps, and about his interest in Japanese car racing. He also said he hoped to be released early. As a first time offender he thought his chances were good. 

Marc mentioned having once been put into total isolation, where he was not allowed letters, magazines or any other contact with the outside, a stint which lasted two months. In terms of the comparison between population and Camp J, he was torn between enjoying the privacy of his one-man cell where he had lots of time to study and think, and missing being around other people. “I like to socialise and I practically live in the hobby shop,” he wrote, “but in here you’ve got to adapt like a chameleon. So wherever they put me, I’ll survive.”

Not long after that, following two years of letters, Marc stopped writing. I sent him two or three extra missives, a few weeks and then months apart, hoping to hear back. Nothing. Maybe he just decided to stop writing, maybe he was put into isolation again, or he could have been moved to another camp. I still don’t know for sure. The internet reveals very little, bar a few records of prisoner civil rights cases he was involved in prior to our correspondence, and I’ve contacted Angola separately but they’ve obviously got bigger fish to fry than answering my query. A New York Times reporter wrote in 1998 that it was “impossible to visit [Angola] and not feel that a prisoner could disappear off the face of the earth and no one would ever know or care.” Wherever Marc is now, I don’t know. But I do care.

Zoe Radas (@zoekatarina)

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