The value of the written word
I remember when I arrived at Deuel Vocational Institute (DVI) in Tarcy, California. Staring up at those five tiers let me know I’d finally made it to the “Big House.” I had to climb those stairs to an empty cell on the fifth tier all by myself. I sat on the bed next to my bedroll, a wool blanket, a sheet, a towel, my hygiene kit — which included one razor, a small bar of soap, and some toothpowder, and five “non-sufficient funds” (NSF) metered envelopes — all inside a pillowcase with no pillow. This was everything I had in the world. I wondered how I was going to survive.
Then it was mail call. I could hear the officer walking down the tier: The sound of his jangling keys as his harsh voice called out names made my heart beat faster as he drew ever closer.
“Coles!” the officer barked at the door. I excitedly said my last two numbers of my CDCR number so the officer could match it to my last name. Mom sent me a Garfield card that said:
“I know things are tough right now,
but just remember…every flower that
ever bloomed had to go through a whole
lot of dirt to get there!”
I was so excited! Mom didn’t forget me! I took the card to mean, “Cheer up! It looks bad now but it’ll get greater later.” The warmth of her words made me want to respond quickly.
I cast about for something, anything, to write her back. I found a lunch bag and a red wax pencil. I wrote some careful words of love to Mom on the paper bag, stuffed it into one of my NSF envelopes, and dropped it in the mailbox with a prayer on my way to chow that evening. A week later, I received a $250 money order with a note from Mom saying, “I know they ain’t got my baby writing on paper bags!”
Whoever said “absence makes the heart grow fonder” clearly has had to miss someone over a period of days or weeks due to a brief holiday or vacation. What do you say of someone who has been gone for years? Decades? I believe this is where the phrase “out of sight, out of mind” comes from, where not seeing someone for too long can lead to that someone being forgotten.
This is especially true in prison. There are only three legal ways to maintain contact with loved ones: visiting, collect calls and letters. I had my first in-person visit in 2021; I have been incarcerated since 2006. Collect calls are a maze fraught with disrespectful callers, changing schedules, and winding lines. Illegal means, such as using cell phones, have caused me no end of trouble, including a five-year denial at the parole Board in September 2021. My only recourse is snail mail.
In prison, snail mail is dismally slow. Keeping contact via letters is all rules, regulations and delays. Letters arrive three to eight or more days after they reach the prison. In some cases, weeks or months of delays means mail can arrive after any information inside is relevant.
Sometimes we get return-to-sender letters, mail notifications of unacceptable parcels, rerouted mail, and packets in need of more postage that take a month or more to return, disrupting conversations needed so incarcerated people and their loved ones are never out of sight out of mind. Contact with my loved ones is vital to my rehabilitation.
Don’t get me wrong, I love writing letters! I love reading letters! They are tiny gifts of time someone took out of their precious human lives to give me. My mom still writes me regularly, even after her stroke.
My supporters always write letters and send stamps to keep our conversations going. Snail mail has led to great collaborations, including co-imagining a class with Professor Selby Schwartz of Stanford
University called “Radical Acts of Public Art: Rhetoric and Artivism.” This first-year writing class analyzes the intersection of art and activism. One aspect of this class is that both sets of students write me letters.
These gifts include anything and everything, from questions about coping with incarceration to asking for advice. Some include class assignments or share their own public art in the form of photojournalism,
poetry or murals drawn and colored by hand. Some of this art is on my wall, including a beach drawn with colored pencils and a picture of a hand-painted mural of several Victorian houses. I make sure to write them back individually so they know I see them and they are in my thoughts. I have every letter anyone has ever sent me.
We live in a technological age where incarcerated people should be able to reach out and touch their loved ones instantly and constantly. One solution is email and zoom calls. Virtual visiting is already a huge success. Having this technology close at hand would not jeopardize prison security, and can be easily