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A red neon heart glows, imprisoned inside a cage
Photo by Olivier Collet on Unsplash

I tried to subdue the quiver in my voice when I spoke.

“I’m falling in love with you,” I told her.

There was no response, so I said it again, “I love you.”

She laughed. My heart sank.

I’ll never forget that moment. It’s one of many rejections I’ve experienced living as a convict in a New Jersey prison. While incarcerated, it has often felt like I shouldn’t allow myself to be vulnerable with others, but I still do. 

Most of us in prison are lonely. We desire meaningful human contact. And so we reach out to people in an infinite loop of hope, searching for love and compassion outside our confinement, even if it leaves us hurt. 

People sometimes think convicts have less of a capacity to experience emotions. But indifference and rejection hurts us too. In prison, I’ve had to be persistent to stay connected with people I care about. I can’t let broken bonds harden my heart.

Maintaining relationships while banished from society is difficult, even with family members. The woman who laughed off my love was no stranger to me — in some ways she’d become family.

It only takes a matter of years for sisters and brothers to become strangers. When you’re in prison, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, nieces and nephews can disappear from your life. 

It’s hard to keep in touch when you’re not the focus of someone’s life. It’s hard to keep in touch when people can’t even recall what you look like.

This difficulty is demonstrated by the volume of letters received in prison. After a few years, incoming letters slow to a trickle. There are fewer people to call, and not many are willing to sign up for email.

It does not take long for loneliness to set in. On those rare days when I used to get mail, I’d often respond in an excited rush, with pages of lengthy reactions. The hope was to compel the correspondent to write back. 

Writing long letters and expecting equal responses is a failing strategy because people on the outside have lives. They don’t have time to respond. My vulnerability and care have led to fewer letters, loneliness and disappointment. 

The woman from the beginning of this story was one of the few exceptions. Prior to that phone call, when I said the words she never wanted to hear, she hadn’t disappointed me. We had kept in touch for about 25 years, even after I was convicted of horrendous crimes, and we wrote long letters that were way too intimate. 

At one point, before I said I loved her, I had written to her that I no longer had it in me to communicate and asked her to stop sending letters.

Several years later, a message was delivered to my cell. It was from her. Her words, like always, sang to me. She wrote, “I did not stop writing to you because you told me to stop. I stopped writing because I got very sick. You don’t frighten me and you can’t tell me what to do.” 

I smiled at her reaction. 

The fact she — a mother, a chef and an entrepreneur — had stayed in touch with me, a “detested” criminal, showed her character. Of course, I responded. How could I let her down?

During that second round of communication I became enamored. Falling for her was easy. She was smart, beautiful, strong, spiritual — an exceptional human being. Simply hearing from her had me smiling for days. 

She didn’t see me as someone impervious to emotional pain. That’s partly why her laughter during our phone call stung so much. She knew it hurt me, so she sent me a letter to “let me down easy.”

It took time to get over her rejection, but I don’t blame her for how she reacted. I think she did the right thing. 

I eventually realized it was one thing for her to communicate with me through the mail, but a much different, harder thing, to allow me into her heart the way I wanted. I had asked too much of her and almost ruined a friendship.

To this day, we are still in touch. I’m much better at respecting her boundaries and time, and she gives me some of the time she can muster away from her busy life. Whenever she writes, it’s a blessing.

Maintaining relationships in prison requires balance, patience and sometimes humility. Few will respond if you are too much, and no one will write if you fail to understand their time and limitations. 

But that doesn’t mean we should let the fear of being hurt prevent us from connecting with people on the outside. If we’re never vulnerable, we won’t get hurt. But we also risk becoming, just like some people say, emotionless. 

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.

Patrick Lanzel is a writer incarcerated in New Jersey. Over the past three decades, he has worked as a teacher’s aide, teacher, and an office clerk.