An interview with Renée
When did you start writing your pen pal and why did you choose him?
I started writing my pen pal a little over a year ago. To this day I’m still not sure what drew me to his profile but after looking at dozens of ads, his was the only one that stood out. I wrote my first message via the Write A Prisoner mail service, it was just a brief introduction explaining who I was. It took over 6 weeks for me to get a reply, and to be honest, by that time I had already forgotten about the whole thing. I can’t remember what was in that first reply letter I got, I do remember it was 14 pages and I felt an instant connection.
We are as different as we could possibly be.
Where are you from and what do you do?
I am from Holland, I am 25 years old, I currently work as a doctor and I have all the support from friends and family that I could wish for. My life has been quite easy and I enjoy every single day of it. He is a black guy from ‘the hood’ in Chicago, he is 39 years old (one of my favorite things to tease him with, he hates aging), he has been incarcerated since 1996 and is facing a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Most of his friends and family have stopped caring by now, he has very little outside support. He had a nasty childhood, ended up in gangs and eventually landed in prison.
What do you talk about in your letters?
At the start of our friendship he didn’t really trust me. He’s been abandoned by people so much that he’s afraid to get hurt.
He’s afraid to get his hopes up, he’s afraid to believe that anything even remotely positive could ever happen to him. Now he’s realised I’m not just going to disappear on him.
If mail gets delayed for whatever reason it still gets him on edge though, afraid to lose his new friend. At the start of our friendship we used to write whenever we received a letter from the other person. That took ages though as it can take up to 4 weeks for mail to travel back and forth. Very quickly we started to just write weekly letters. This means that on most weeks I’ll receive a letter from him and he’ll receive a letter from me. He writes his, I type and print mine. He doesn’t have access to the mail services because he’s in a high security prison. Snail mail has it’s charms though. I recently discovered Flickshop and I’m hoping that’s a way for me to get a message to him a little bit faster.
Do you think writing an inmate is beneficial?
I know my letters have helped him. He’s become calmer, he has something to look forward to. He has someone to share ‘news’ with. Every now and again he tells me how much this means to him, once he told me;
That’s what these letters are to him; a way to escape prison for a few hours a week. But also a way to be connected to the outside world and a way to receive some positive reinforcement.
He loves hearing about my life, seeing pictures and being a part of something; a real friendship.
We talk about all sorts of things, I try and teach him about the new developments, and recently he asked me to explain Kickstarter to him. He tells me about his childhood, his time before he got to prison and also what got him to be in prison. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to know what he was in for. He’s always told me I could ask him anything and he’d answer as best he could. Eventually I asked him how he got incarcerated and he told me the whole story, in full detail. It’s made me feel like I understand him better. I hear the newest prison gossip, he tells me how he’s getting on or he tells me about the good old days. We joke around a lot. I like to tease him with his age, he hates me for it. He teases me whenever he can find a good subject.
We play games like Hangman or Tic Tac Toe. Sometimes I’ll print him some stuff from the internet or I’ll send him a few books. Anything to keep him busy.
Ever since we started writing he’s trying to make positive changes for himself. He already hadn’t gotten in trouble for a while but now he’s looking into getting a degree, he’s got himself a prison job, he’s taken some younger guys under his wing, and he’s doing well. It’s a nice way to get unbiased feedback. He’ll give it to me straight if he thinks I’m doing something stupid. He’s very caring and supportive, recently I hit a bit of a rough patch and he made me a lovely card to show his support. He’s made me realise I need to enjoy the little things more. I try and pay better attention, for myself, but also so I can tell him about it later. I’ve gotten a better understanding of inmates, of the way inmates are treated in the US, and the immense differences between our two countries. I appreciate my friends and family more since I’ve heard about his childhood. I realize now that it’s special to have your mum make picture albums all throughout your childhood, how special it is we went to theme parks and on family holidays. And also how special it is that my family supports me in writing my pen pal.
For the first time in years I’m opening my mailbox every single day, just to make sure I get his letters the day they arrive. I’m excited every time I get a letter, curious as to what it will say and how he’s getting on.
It’s a valuable experience for me, I’ve gained a friend on the other side of the world. He’s gained someone that cares, regardless of his past.