Writing to a prisoner
by Herman Labuschagne

(Posting to Fountain Pen Network Thread)


I am not a penpal person, although out of loyalty and for the sake of friendship I used to keep up snail mail correspondence with one or two for 15 years. Today the only snail mail correspondence I still keep up happens to be with a prisoner. 


It began while I was researching a prison matter. I sent largely the same letter to about 6 people of a particular profile - and received only one reply. He was just a stupid kid who had made a big mistake a few years ago. He is 24 now, serving a very long sentence. 


I kept answering back out of curiosity at first. It is a slow way to get to know someone - three weeks for a letter to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and three weeks plus for the reply. But even so, slowly his personality began to take shape. Slowly a name on top of an address became a living person. Someone who once had hopes and dreams, just like us.


Equally slowly, I discovered that my letters had become a window upon the world to him. A lifeline. A small telescope that pointed back to a life and to values which had grown dim in both his past and in his future.


What is there to share when two lives have little in common? I don't know. Does there have to be much? It is easy for me to write. Every letter writes itself. My pen is an inkwell from which flows memories - memories of my childhood in the countryside, experiences during my travels - and thoughts and reflections about honour and justice, laughter and sadness. 


His letters contain poetry sometimes. Reminiscences of a good life which is irretrievably lost. A future that vanished before it even started. Sometimes they contain a mosaic of daily life within that miniature wilderness which he inhabits - a savage world in which the predator easily becomes the hunted - where survival is everyone's daily preoccupation. A fascinating, messed-up micro cosmos where each man has a vulnerable side - which he will hide as his greatest secret.


For the most part, his letters are like a sad voice that is crying in a canyon. You can hear the echoes long after the sobs have ended. But you know that you will never see the voice who uttered them because it comes from a place that you can’t reach.


For a long time I felt ill at ease to have contact with an inmate. I come from a family and a society which knew little scandal or blemish. We don't talk to prisoners. But I realized one day that nearly every one of us has done something which could have landed us in jail - we were just never caught. The traffic light you skipped just once - you could have hit a child while you had half a glass of wine too much after a meal. But there was no child that day. There was no accident. You were never caught. You were lucky.


But even if you never did anything wrong. There is still the matter of kindness to a stranger. 2,000 year old words kept whispering in my mind: "Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord…. when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." 


I realized that if I had nobody, I would have truly appreciated anybody throwing me a harmless hand full of words through prison bars.


These things I have been taught when I was a child. I realized that I needed no reasons at all. It just seemed the right thing to do. I almost never write hand-written letters anymore. But to him I still write by hand sometimes. Old thoughts, scratched onto paper by ancient nibs to a scared and onely kid that I will probably never meet. I don't have to have a reason.