Why It Matters

Coming to prison is a massive detriment to the social fabric and still it happens for a reason. Good or bad, society needs to be guarded from people who pose a danger. But through the carceral process and the introduction of rehabilitation, the social fabric needs to be woven again to include those incarcerated. But how? One sure method is through pen pal services and direct connections between the outside world and prisoners. Communication leads to humbling acceptance. Isolation and neglect are a devastating effect on the very idea of desistance. If one doesn’t matter, why try? Or so it may be perceived by the incarcerated who may feel they’ve lost it all by their actions in a critical moment of life mismanagement. Pen pals and free-world friendships are a gift of belonging, a gift of that craved acceptance, and a motivator towards living with betterment and social commitment in mind. Many people in prison simply need to know that they are missed and still matter. Telling them that may change the very nature of how they do their time and how they focus their energies towards the good. Direct communications are coveted lifelines to humanity, a humanity that is beneficial regardless of a person’s past.

My Reasons

After roughly seven years of incarceration, I had already lost a lot and my sense of my humanity was following. While I was making great gains to better myself in very profound ways, I still felt a deep loss by the vast ocean that stood between me and the world I longed to get back to. After experiencing what inmates call the “five year fall off”, where community support dwindles and ties to family and friends strain or dry up completely, I found myself facing the very elements that brought me to prison in the first place. I am a combat veteran and after my service time and a dysfunctional marriage, isolation lead to the worst of my self imaging and behaviors. Coming to prison was a gift, but it only provided so much. I had to matter to my community again, too. In a moment that can only be described as a mental health crisis, I sought help inside and with it, I reached out to an inmate pen pal site in hopes for a voice from outside. I was in a very dark place and while I outwardly acted indifferent by this disconnect from the free world, inside I was being ripped apart. I wanted to belong, but I could only reach one way and I had to have faith that someone would reach back.

Her Reasons, In Her Words

When I discovered that writing inmates for friendship was possible, I was a bit hesitant. Like most people, I had my own personal biases about people who were found guilty and then incarcerated. As I thought more about it, I realized that many of these people would be freed back into society, and should be given the opportunity to connect to a world they’d one day enter. If true rehabilitation were to take place, it would have to eventually include guiding people back into the free world. I also thought that those who won’t be able to rejoin the free world should still be able to vicariously see and experience all it has to offer. People in prison may not physically be in the general public, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have things to offer it. Although I don’t lead an adventurous life, I thought that still offering a glimpse of my world would be valued. I teetered back and forth on whether I could truly open myself to people who were incarcerated, but then I thought to myself that being incarcerated doesn’t automatically turn someone into a monster. In some cases, as I’ve seen with many of my friends, they seem to be more mentally adjusted as they have had time to reflect on their actions and appreciate the true meaning of compassion and friendship. There is an openness and desire to be better that is not often seen in those who haven’t faced judgement for their actions. Overall, I feel grateful for my friends and I wouldn’t trade them for anyone!

Where Our Friendship And My Rehabilitation Collide

After a few months of listing on a pen pal service, I received a letter and with it, the experiences and motivations to continue to grow with my community in mind. I wasn’t isolated anymore even though I am in prison and how I’ve thought about community reflected in deep and meaningful exchanges. The regular communication with free society gave me a great sense of self worth and the beauty of friendship. The communication has ensured another element of my rehabilitation and continued desistance – what I do matters because I’m not alone. I was able to bear the ugliest parts of my life and my new friend gave radical acceptance, something I had struggled to do for myself. She showed me it was possible. She showed me that what I do and who I am matters. In turn, I work diligently at providing her with genuine compassion and friendship because she also matters. She, through reaching into prison, cultivated a healthy contribution to community for us both. We both have skin in this extremely important game. As a therapeutic piece of my own reentry planning, my community involvement is paramount to life after prison, a value driven life, and seeing my best self come alive. I have friendship and connection, and I have someone in the free world to share it with. Today, because of this direct personal involvement, we drive other incarcerated people to find that same hope.

By Rory Andes and Whitney Mitchell

About the contributor – Whitney is a 25 year old nursing student from North Carolina who started doing inmate outreach in 2020 at the height of the Covid pandemic in the US. She contributes to her local community through charitable services and values a better society. She enjoys creative miniature modeling and animal rescue efforts.