The Art of Prison Writing

“Like many other prison sentences, mine begins with a poor choice. I drove under the influence and someone was killed.”

This was the first description I read of many in my search for what I like to call a “committed friendship.” I was surprised at the honest (and sometimes humorous) descriptions of prisoners looking for someone to talk to on the outside world.

The idea came to me after stumbling across a series of prison correspondence projects that allow people to write to incarcerated LGBTQ members. The golden rule is simple: Unless instructed by the prisoner, it is unacceptable to disclose their sexual orientation.

I read dozens of profiles that listed each person’s legal name and the province or state in which they were incarcerated. Some included nicknames, which ranged from gang associations to precious gems. Some included their race. Some included their profession — lawyers, chefs, drug dealers and aspiring dancers were all behind bars looking for someone to talk to. Some claimed they were innocent. Almost no one disclosed their charges.

Cautious and curious, I turned to Google for answers. Sometimes, a court document or local news story would pop up. Other times, I got nothing.

My list grew shorter after reading some of the gruesome charges. One gunned down and killed a pregnant teen. One stabbed a partner’s grandmother to death. Another murdered their stepchild on Easter morning. A couple of the US prisoners were on death row.

No matter what their story was, I wouldn’t see the background unfold on an episode of “Orange Is the New Black” before deciding whether or not I could handle it.

Instead, I thought about the stories I did know, which took me back to childhood.

A local police officer stood outside my sister’s Grade 8 classroom. The officer was talking to a teacher, who was trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears. Beside the teacher was one of my sister’s classmates, whose hands were held behind his back in a pair of shiny handcuffs.

His younger sister, a timid girl in my Grade 5 class, screamed as her brother was taken away. I watched her run down the hallway in the opposite direction, her glasses fogging up as the heat rose from her cheeks. When she couldn’t run anymore, she barricaded herself in a locker. Her brother had been caught stealing money from the teacher’s desk in an envelope marked “pizza day.”

I didn’t think about her again until nearly a decade later when I was sitting in my university dorm room. A mouse scurried under my door, backing itself into a corner when it saw me. Small and shaking with fear, I remembered the timid girl who hid herself in a locker and away from the world. I let the mouse go.

I’ve seen my fair share of arrests in cities across the world since then — from poor parts of towns, to parking lots, to prestigious zip codes. I remember how, in Grade 3, my sister and I knocked on a neighbor’s door to play with his puppies. When he didn’t answer, we let ourselves in, hoping he simply didn’t hear us. He wasn’t there, but several handguns and bags of what I later learned was cocaine were.

All of this lead to choosing someone whose criminal charges I could not find. If I ever learn how my pen pal ended up in prison, I want it to be his choice. Until then, we’re sharing the little details about each other’s lives, although I already know the truth.

At some point in our lives, we’ve all made mistakes. Some of us just don’t get caught.