(In)Mate

69. Write to a prisoner

I have always been really interested by crime and punishment growing up, my mother used to have shelves full of case files whose pages played host to some of the most notorious criminals. Think Myra Hindley, Fred and Rose West and Jack the Ripper. I really used to be intrigued about the psychology behind criminals and why they carried out such heinous crimes. There was only one way to find out..

I’d toyed with the idea of writing to an inmate for a few years. Everyone I spoke to thought I was absolutely crackers; they simply couldn’t comprehend why any ‘normal’ girl would want to engage with a criminal, and even more so, build a friendship. I remember how it happened, I’d just finished a long binge-watching stint of The Keepers (an absolute watch if you have Netflix) and I’d made my mind up. How could I find out who to write to? I stumbled across a website which played as an almost match-making site. Think Plenty of Fish crossed with Toughest Prisons. I started trawling through the profiles, and to be completely honest I didn’t actually know what I was looking for. Some inmates wanted friendship, some relationships and some even legal aid to help their cases. I then began to filter my searches, I wanted to find someone who was near enough the same age as me. I wanted to see the parallels; how an incarcerated twenty-four year old in the US got to where they are, and how I got to where I am. I had in my mind I would lightly use our interactions as a social experiment, but I was apprehensive.

I selected my inmate (let’s call him D) who is imprisoned in Menard, Illinois and he is serving a life sentence for a gang-land home invasion gone wrong, resulting in the slaying of a mother and her fifteen year old son. This is where I must add, by writing to D, does not for a second make his crime okay, nor am I condoning anything he has done, because it is horrific. D was fifteen when this crime was committed, and was part of a gang initiation. After the robbery, the gang leader said D must enter the house again and shoot the witnesses, because if he didn’t they would kill him. As a fifteen year old, with no real family and not mentally developed (our brains actually are fully developed at twenty-four), I can imagine he didn’t have a choice in the matter. Regardless, the crime committed was unfathomable.

Let us fast forward, D was tried as an adult and sentenced to life imprisonment. My first letter to him was quite difficult to write. I didn’t know what I wanted to say, how I wanted to explain why I was writing to him. After hours of piecing together what seemed like a rambling letter, I popped it in and envelope and posted it on. It was a whole two weeks before I heard anything back, my office wife Nicolle came running down to my desk holding an envelope with a big USA stamp on it, and probably the neatest cursive handwriting I’d ever seen. We both just stopped and stared at the letter. After carefully opening it, I pulled out four back-to-back lined notebook sheets, covered in words. He’d actually written back to me. I was just shocked, I was also quite shocked I was holding the hand written letter that a murderer had also held, days before, and it was very surreal and also quite haunting.

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Since that day we’ve written back and forth; he’s told me about his upbringing, his family, what his ambitions are and what he’d do if he ever got out. He’s told me about prison life, how building friendships is hard because you can never really trust anyone and how twenty-three hours in a cell is mind numbing. To combat the boredom he says he reads a lot, he has recommended a few books to me, and I’ve done the same. It is strange because I kind of understand him, we can have a laugh and joke about things that ‘normal’ twenty-four year olds talk about. In his letters he shows a lot of remorse for his crime, committed nine years ago, he has even written to the family of his victims. Again, by feeling conflicted sympathy towards D, does not mean he shouldn’t be where he is. I am a firm believer in justice (although not so much the judicial system) but what I DO believe is that everyone is human and everyone can choose to feel remorse. I am really glad I decided to write to D, as it has opened my eyes to a wider way of thinking and feeling, and if he can learn from me, and I can learn from him, then there must be a positive in there somewhere.