Reaching Inside Out
By Nikki Stern
Four years ago, I came upon an opportunity to serve as a writing mentor to an incarcerated individual by becoming a pen pal. The offer came on Facebook via an established and well-recognized journalist friend. That was smart; it got me to notice. What got me to sign up was the chance to do something positive, to get me outside myself.
My new writing friend is serving time at Green Haven Correctional Facility in Stormville, NY. One year into our correspondence, I visited. We met in a large open space with long tables and chairs separated by low plastic. No, we didn’t talk by phone through glass. I was in the company of maybe two dozen inmates and their visitors, including children. I was by far the oldest there and palest person there.
Our scheduled forty-five minutes turned into three hours because of an unscheduled lockdown which the prison institutes from time to time. I expected to be nervous, and I was, but not for the reasons you might imagine. My guy treated me like royalty. He was easy to talk with. I just wasn’t sure how we could fill three hours.
I needn’t have worried. We chatted easily, mostly about writing, some about his life inside the prison and his family, a little about my experiences as a 9/11 widow. He brought a lot of his work, some of which I scanned. I bought lunch at the vending machines and we ate companionably. And then I left.
Driving home took three hours and I realized how much the visit had drained me. Nothing like a visit to a prison to understand how debilitating (as opposed to rehabilitating) life in prison must be for the inmates.
The program that connected us allows selected inmates to express themselves creatively. Many of them keep journals. Others write short stories. One is working on a novel. My pen pal writes essays, stories, and plays. One of his pieces made it into a book called Scrolls from a Forgotten World: Prisoners’ Writings and Reflections. His play was produced a couple of years back and a segment of it aired on CNN.
Sometimes I edit his work, mostly not. For one thing, he is improving with practice. For another, his work is authentic and from the heart. You can’t teach that, but you can inadvertently stifle it, and that I never want to do.
He takes great pride in his acquaintance with a “real” author. He claims it’s enhanced his status. All I know is I’ve sent him all my books and he’s gotten them all into the prison library. I can’t tell you how much I love that.
There are rules of engagement, limits imposed by the program, by the logistics of his situation, and by my determination not to promise more than I can deliver. Sometimes all I can do is listen. Mostly, I have to believe that’s as helpful as anything else.
We had a fallow period last year. Like most everyone else, we were both accosted by feelings of despair. I came off my sister’s death and went almost directly into COVID lockdown. In my pen pal’s case, lockdown was that much more onerous. Prisons have been hotspots for virus outbreaks. Visitors were restricted and prisoners lived with the very real danger of living in close quarters within an aging structure with questionable ventilation. Our correspondence faltered.
We’re back to communicating. He has a new play he’s excited to send me. I have a book I want to send him. The prison now allows for paid emails, which he says is what most of the inmates use. I suggested we use email for “emergencies” and stick to letters the rest of the time. They allow for a more personal kind of interaction. The more he writes, the better writer he becomes. I only hope the more I write to him, the better human I become.
Nikki Stern is the author of six books. The last two, The Wedding Crasher and Bird in Hand, are part of an award-winning mystery series whose third book, Freeze Before Burning, is due out in early January of 2022. To learn more, please visit nikkistern.com
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