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My Pen Pal is in the Pen, Pal
“One of the many lessons that one learns in prison is that things are what they are and will be what they will be.” — Oscar Wilde
Allow me to stray from our Classic TV motif for a moment.
Have you ever had a pen pal? If so, then you’re likely ‘of a certain age’ as people ‘of a certain age’ are fond of saying.
As a pre-teen and into my twenties, I kept in touch with friends through the U.S. Mail. Former classmates, actors I’d worked with, unrequited loves, it didn’t matter that it took days or weeks to receive a reply. It was always a moment of genuine excitement to find an envelope with my name on it in the mailbox.
To my surprise, in this digital age, I actually have an honest to goodness pen pal, our correspondence only made possible via USPS, this person’s only lifeline to the outside world. That’s because my pen pal, Zac, is actually in the pen, a little more than midway through serving a 30-year sentence for Second Degree Murder.
I first contacted Zac in early 2014, with regards to a story I was working on centered around a notoriously gruesome local homicide that I won’t wade into here. He had nothing to do with the killing itself, tried to stop it in fact, but in North Carolina if you participate in a crime that ends in murder you go up for that charge.
He replied to my unexpected outreach, we began a back and forth that lasted a good six months as I attempted to make sense of what happened before, during, and after that fateful night in 1999 when a Sunset Hills nightclub promoter was brutalized then stabbed to death.
Don’t get me wrong, Zac wasn’t innocent by any measure, a willing participant until the knife came out. Another teenager took the life of the victim, who didn’t exactly have clean hands himself. It was a tragic event all the way around and Zac is paying dearly for it. Can you imagine erasing everything in your life between the ages of 18 and 48? Never owned a cell phone, sent an email, used a computer or surfed the internet, learned a profession, gotten married, raised children, pursued your dreams?
We didn’t always see eye to eye in our correspondence about what transpired, there were minor clashes of perspective but, with Zac’s insight coupled with news reports from the time and court transcripts, I felt I’d gained as clear an understanding of the crime as would be possible, Zac being one of only three living persons who were present when the deed went down.
After concluding my investigation, I ran across an article that stated communicating with people on the outside has a profoundly positive impact on prisoners, increases their chances at rehabilitation and assimilation. So I told Zac that, if he wanted, I’d continue writing to him but would never again bring up the situation that landed him there.
One unexpected benefit for myself, because I archive my letters to Zac they serve as a diary of sorts since I mostly write about what’s going on in my life. Talk about a captive audience.
While I have the luxury of composing letters on a computer, his replies arrive in longhand, on ruled paper like we used in school. You can tell a lot about a person from their scribbling; handwritten letters are a great deal more revealing. No cutting, pasting, or circling back to reframe a sentence. More spontaneous.
Over the years, I’ve discovered a great deal about life in the clink from these jailhouse dispatches.
In Zac’s case, there’s no time off for good behavior and conjugal visits aren’t a thing in our state prison system. Beef is served once a year, on Christmas Day, and there’s no air conditioning in his ‘camp’ which is situated near the coast. Your child drew you a picture? You’d never see it in prison thanks to ingenious smugglers who’ve devised a way to infuse Crayolas with LSD. When smoking was banned behind bars in 2010, cigarettes supplanted marijuana as the hottest smuggled-in item.
Every envelope gets searched, The Screws tossing out any contraband beforehand including, but not limited to, posters (blame Shawshank Redemption for that), articles torn from magazines or newspapers, food, cash, stamps, anything of substance really, except for books ordered through Amazon.
In Zac’s case, and this is fairly typical, there’s minimal contact with family, feeling it’s too painful for them to observe him in that situation or think too much about the reality of it. He apparently looks forward to letters arriving with the same enthusiasm that Eye did as a younger man, only I don’t recall our mailman swinging a Billy Club.
Last time I wrote Zac was with concern about the aftermath of that massive hurricane roaring through the state last September. “Luckily it didn’t flood the camp,” Zac wrote in response. “Although we did lose power for about a week. A lot of the prisons surrounding here were evacuated and I’m happy they decided not to move us. I’ve met people who were evacuated during past years and they spoke of horror stories.”
Hey, nobody claimed it would be a romp in the park, if you can’t do the time, etc, etc.On the flip side, if I am ever incarcerated (Heaven forfend!) I’ve learned exactly what to do. Just pick out the biggest, baddest, toughest guy in the yard and avoid him at all costs.
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My Pen Pal is in the Pen, Pal
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