A scattered pile of letters sent to prison
Photo by Jim_Filim on Depositphotos

You can feel the tension increase on 6-North every evening around 6. 

Dinner cleanup is finished. Games of cribbage and Scrabble begin. A soft murmur of the evening news emanates from the TV room, but it does not mask the electricity in the air. 

Resolute chess players periodically lift their heads and peer toward an entrance door. Tiny beads of sweat appear on upper lips and brows, and you can almost hear the thump of heartbeats. 

What elicits such anticipation in these inmates? Fear of the lieutenant who distributes extra duty slips? The pending arrival of the attractive brunette who picks up the sick call list? 

No, it’s the wait for mail call. 

Letters, magazines, greeting cards and even legal mail are treasured in prison. When the familiar blue mesh mailbag finally appears, all are drawn to it as if a huge magnet has suddenly activated. Prisoners are sucked out of their cells and TV rooms, swept along to the corrections officer’s desk. Even the hardest veteran inmate has to fight to keep the edges of his mouth from curling into a tiny smile. 

Card games and chess skirmishes may continue, but each time a name is called out, eyes raise discreetly toward the pile of envelopes — silent hope that someone has remembered. 

Mail call is the focal point of a dreary existence, something to look forward to in this desert of time. It’s like Christmas morning to a child. Unfortunately, for many, there is rarely anything in the blue mesh mailbag. We walk away with shoulders slumped, silently mumbling about our loved ones not knowing what it is like on the inside.

Many times we say to ourselves, “Why do I bother to send letters? Nobody cares enough to write back.”

How do we overcome this cycle of hopelessness and still encourage our friends and relatives to write? For one, send quality letters and you will receive more responses. Write positive letters, with upbeat content, instead of dwelling on negativity. 

Granted, many of us do not write well and are a little embarrassed by spelling and grammatical errors. In reality, do your relatives really pay attention to errors in your letter? Probably not. They are loved ones, not middle school English teachers. 

Our correspondents, finding one of our letters in their mailbox, are as excited as we are for mail. However, when they find our letters filled with complaints about the prison system, hatred, anger and frustration, who can blame them for not feeling upset themselves? There is little our correspondents can do to make an inmate’s frustrations go away. 

How do you feel when your mother writes to you about an intimidating and harassing neighbor? There is nothing you can do to help her, and you are depressed and angry at the predicament. Mom is in the same boat when you send a letter airing your problems with a corrections officer, counselor or other inmate. 

I’ve found that people on the outside do not want to hear about unpalatable food, long lines or the lack of useful activities, unless you present the difficulties in a humorous manner. They want to hear positive aspects of your life, however few. 

Think about the last letter you received from home, one that brought a smile to your face. The communication was filled with information about family, friends, new babies, relatives and changes taking place. A letter like this might cause homesickness, maybe a tear or two, but overall, the information invigorates you. 

Try writing your letters in a similar vein. Include positive information. Relate a new friend you have made or simply state you are staying healthy, working out or that you finally beat a certain guy in a game of handball. 

Family and friends at home feel badly about your situation, and if you show them your strength in dealing with life inside, they, in turn, are encouraged. Remember, the recipients of our cards and letters absorb your disappointment and frustrations. Their responses to your letters come easier if they do not first have to sort out their own bad feelings. 

When answering letters, re-read the lines and pen a few of your own in response to each topic covered. Answer questions and reminisce. If Aunt Teresa had a baby, respond with a line or two about how you remember she was such a terrible driver. Whoever wrote you might respond that Aunt Teresa recently had two fender-bender accidents, continuing your long-distance correspondence. Your letters will be longer, but far more interesting. You want those writing to enjoy the experience as much as you do.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

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John L. Orr

John L. Orr is a writer incarcerated in California.