Sunday, August 24, 2008

Old fashioned snail mail and the penal system

Way back in junior high I got started on a hobby that I still indulge in: writing to pen pals. There's something very satisfying about getting actual letters in the mail box occasionally instead of only a zillion credit card offers. There are a few people I've been writing to since before my kids were born; there are others where it's only been a few months or a year. It's kind of like blogging -- some people drop into your life and you hit it off and the letters just get better and better; others turn out to be folks who write the same thing every time ("How are you? I am fine. The weather is nice. Write back soon." Or words to that effect) or turn out to be more than slightly nuts. It generally becomes clear fairly quickly if they're worth either the effort or the stamp.

People find pen pals through various mechanisms: web sites, newsletters, magazines, friendship books and slams. Friendship books (aka FBs) are handmade little booklets that people sign, maybe mention a hobby or two, and then pass on. Slams are similar, but incorporate a questionnaire -- they're like mini-surveys of people's favorite movies, colors, flowers, songs, whatever. There's a random element to FBs -- you never quite know where they're going to end up as they pass from person to person.

Which brings me to pen pals who are literally pen pals. Every so often one of those FBs wanders through a prison, or someone who does pen pal newsletters lifts names and addresses from FBs and the newsletter wanders through a prison. . . which in turn means letters from prisoners land in my mail box.

I used to write to a few convicts, and I've known quite a few other people who did, too. I always told the ones I chose to correspond with that there were 2 conditions: one was to be absolutely clear the only thing they'd ever get from me was a letter (no money, no stamps, no tennis shoes)(apparently good shoes are hard to get in prison) and the other was absolutely nothing sexual. If they wanted to chat about Heinlein's science fiction, speculate about who might win the presidential race, or reminisce about their classic car, fine. The first time they asked about my underwear, though, they'd never hear from me again. I had no problem helping them pass time while they sat behind bars -- if someone's writing letters he's not quite as likely to be causing problems for the guards, at least not while he's actually writing letters -- and I always enjoy arguing politics. If they needed wank material, they needed to look elsewhere. Over the years I probably corresponded with half a dozen guys, we chatted about books, camping, politics, whatever, and when their sentences ended, so did the correspondence.

Anyway, back when she still had religion one of my long-time pals used to correspond with prisoners on death row in an attempt to "bring them to the Lord." I have a hunch that it's more likely they just conned her into supplying them with negotiable goods for use in the prison economy, like cigarettes, but you never know. Other pals wrote to more ordinary prisoners, run-of-the-mill burglars, car thieves, and dope dealers, and weren't as adamant about drawing the lines as I was. They'd occasionally lose their grip on reality and slide into romantic involvements. In one case it actually turned out okay (the snail mail equivalent of a successful relationship through; unlikely but not impossible) -- the guy was in prison on a relatively minor charge, a nonviolent crime, and following his release was never in trouble with the law again. They got married, they had kids, and they lived relatively happily ever after for quite a few years until he unfortunately became ill and died much too young.

In most cases, of course, what happened is the convict would lay it on thick about his wrongful conviction (the prisons are filled with innocent men, which always makes me wonder just who is committing all the crimes), convince my pal to send him various gifts and money, make extravagent promises about how wonderful life would be once he got out, and as soon as those prison doors opened she never heard from the douchehound again. One pal, a divorced mother of three, actually fell for the same line of shit at least four times. In one case she actually took a Greyhound from Pennsylvania to Oklahoma and booked a motel room to wait for her True Love to meet her when he was released. He never showed. For all I know, she's still repeating that pattern. Either that, or one of the psychotic losers she wrote to actually looked her up after he was released and she's now dead in a ditch somewhere; we stopped corresponding about 15 years ago.

The reason I'm thinking about this today is yesterday, for the first time in many months, there was a letter with the tell-tale return address (e.g., Joe Smith C123456, PO Box . . . ). And, if the address wasn't a dead give-away, the phrase "Mailed from a Correctional Facility" stamped front and back on the envelope was a pretty good clue. As usual, I was moderately surprised by the high literacy levels the fellow displayed -- no mispelled words, no incomplete sentences -- as well as his chattiness. It was not a short letter. Then again, he has had plenty of time to polish his spiel. I felt almost sorry for the man. I don't know where he got my address from, but it's real clear there was no personal info with it, like my age, or he wouldn't have bothered.

He's also apparently never heard of the internet. He did the usual long, long explication on his innocence, even threw a new twist on it --the Innocence Project is working on his case. Dude, someone needs to tell you that it's now possible to type in a convict's name and search a multitude of free databases. (Thank you, John Walsh, and the many others who have helped with that.) One crime, yes, it's possible the poor sap was misidentified, had incompetent legal representation, whatever. A crime spree? With clear images captured on closed circuit TV? House packed full of stolen goods? I don't think so.

This particular case isn't quite as blatant an example of denying reality, however, as the serial killer who wrote to me from San Quentin a few years ago. He was on death row (and probably still is, given the slow pace of executions in California). In his introductory letter he laid it on thick about how he was innocent, pure as the driven snow, wouldn't have harmed a fly, had been railroaded, framed, the cops had set him up. So I Googled him. Turned out he had set a record for length of time there and number of appeals that had gone awry (one attorney died, for example, so that kicked the process back to stage one or something). His case was a textbook example of everything that can wrong with the process in terms of things being resolved as speedily as they should. No case should ever take over 20 years to drag through the appellate courts.

Bottom line, though, is it's going to be really, really hard for him to ever get anyone to believe in his innocence when the police found three bodies buried in his backyard.

[Top graphic stolen from Politits -- saw it right after I finished writing the above and could not resist.]


  1. ah, the old fashioned letter...I used to write everyone..I would start my christmas card notes in nov. as I had so year I had 75 people on my card list..most of my kin folk have croaked so that pared down the list..and most of the ones I used to write to I now email..It's not quite the same but my handwriting is so bad any more from arthritis that at least my friends and family can read my emails..I am lax on my spelling and punctuation.I have to use capital letters and lots of periods....ha
    I have several people that are now on my email list(77) that I have never met, but I know the names of their spouses, kids, brothers, sisters, grandkids and most of their relatives. I met a bunch of them when I used to play pogo games and we still swap emails and I have done horoscopes for their kids. Some of the friends I have made on line are like my family...I made friends with Babs, and when she could..she moved to West and lives in the apts right behind me. Sooner came to visit and is supposed to be coming for westfest along with my friend vicki in alabama..she should be here this may not be as good as old fashioned mail..but it is a great invention...

  2. Great post, and I compliment you on your common sense rules.

    Just one question- in all that time sitting across from one another, how come we never (to my recollection) talked Heinlein?

    Good Lord, I practically learned to read on his Scribner's juveniles, and I learned about critical thinking from going back and reading his stuff again and again. (Though only partially in a way RAH likely intended.)

  3. Bob, my girls have no clue how close one of them came to being named Podkayne.

    I occasionally wish that RAH had won the bet about successfully inventing a new religion instead of Hubbard. May you never thirst.

  4. You have to be a special kind of stupid to bury bodies in your backyard when there are ways to make them completely disappear.

    Had a couple I was pen pal friends for about ten years, they had put an ad in Mother Earth News, they came to visit me once to see the basic life I was living, and when trucking I stayed at their home in New Jersey a few times.

    As for product reviews on things sexual. KY is good, but a bit expensive. Equate Personal Lubricant is much cheaper but too thick. But adding water to it until you get it to just the right slipperiness works well and makes even more of it.

    Just thought I would mention that in case you needed to know. ;-)

  5. Well, Billy, you've definitely going to have other visitors to this blog wondering just what the heck I talk about when I wander off the reservation. LOL.

  6. Bob, my girls have no clue how close one of them came to being named Podkayne.

    Someone pointed out that they'll be choosing your nursing home?

  7. I always hope some one will send me money via us mail.

  8. That's pretty cool, Nan. I'm glad that you're wise to how things work and keep from getting into messes with people who might want to take advantage.

    That graphic is perfect for this post. Thanks for the link!

  9. "Someone pointed out that they'll be choosing your nursing home?"

    Well, then I may have blown it by naming one of them Zuleika, a common name in Britain and Ireland, but not so much so in the upper Midwest.

  10. Go with Tammi's recommendation, then.


My space, my rules: play nice and keep it on topic.