Geez – corresponding with an inmate in the Missouri Department of Corrections can be very rewarding – and very frustrating. I am learning the rules as we go.
My friend Joey is serving time for his fourth DWI. I do not dispute the sentence – DWI is a serious offense. Driving while intoxicated is responsible for more deaths in the United States than gun violence. I worked as a Substance Abuse Counselor and also taught Relapse Prevention for Missouri Probation and Parole (P&P). All of my State clients were new parolees – they had to complete my eight week class to remain on parole. The class was conducted in a locked down facility run by Missouri Probation and Parole. Joey is probably a typical inmate in Missouri. Most of the people I worked with were not criminals in the sense that most people envision.
The reason early parolees have to attend a Relapse Prevention class is clear – almost all of them were incarcerated for alcohol or drug related offenses. I never met anyone who did not in some way deserve his time in prison. Prison was the only option left to frustrated Judges in the Circuit Courts. That is not the point of this essay – it is to say that I believe in justice – we must all be responsible for our actions.
Okay – so your fault, my fault, nobody’s fault – people are incarcerated. What can we do? It is only on rare occasions that I have become personally involved with any former clients. I have been out of the official business of counseling for six years. I have never had business dealings with former clients; none have ever been to my home. Any contact I have is limited to some volunteer work I do with the indigent of St. Joseph, Missouri. My volunteer work has steadily declined to about ten hours a week. My intention is to help one person. I don’t know which one it is so I have to help everyone I run across.
Last March, while doing some volunteer work, I ran into Joey’s wife. I had not spoken to Joey in six years – his wife brought me up to speed on his life. She gave me his address and I agreed to write. I have received many letters from prison over the years – but I had never responded in a personal manner. Any correspondence on my part was always in an official capacity. I wrote a personal letter to Joey. It was the beginning of a very rewarding personal experience for me.
After three letters from Joey I began to see some patterns in his writing. Joey has little formal education. While his grammar and spelling leaves something to be desired – he has clear talent as a writer. He hammers his points home with succinct parallel structure. His thoughts are coherent and seasoned with appropriate emotion. I said before that Joey was a ‘typical’ Missouri inmate – and he is. There is far too much wasted potential locked away from any hope of expression.
There were other elements of Joey’s letters that caught my attention. He completely owns his life situation. He makes no excuses for where he is. He looks to the future with optimistic hope that one day he might attend a vocational/technical school and learn a trade. He speaks specifically of a welding school in Nevada, Missouri. It is a nine month course that offers the hope of earned income. Everything about Joey speaks to hope. He is in his early forties, no education, a felon, and presents a resume about half a page long with huge gaps in employment. Yet Joey speaks with a positive attitude about what might be.
I decided to give Joey some extra help. I sent two packages. The first had two books that I have authored – the idea was to show Joey that normal people can write books. I told him of my impressions of his talent for writing. I encouraged him to write. I gave him some ideas for essays. I spoke to him about keeping a daily journal. After sending the package I realized that Joey has no resources for doing any of those tasks. I sent a second package. The second package contained twenty yellow legal pads, twenty first class stamps, a box of envelopes, and three pens.
Today I received a reply from Joey. All of the items I sent were confiscated by the Corrections Officers. He was told he had thirty days to send them back or they would be destroyed. They told him the cost would be twenty-six stamps. Joey used the twenty stamps I sent and borrowed six more from fellow inmates. Joey explained that the process is to insure no contraband is smuggled into the Prison. Geez…. But Joey had a positive attitude. He wrote, “If you can’t control your life and obey the rules of society the State of Missouri has no problem doing it.”
Joey also sent a ‘Visiting Application”. I have filled it out and I am preparing for my first ever visit to an inmate in the Missouri Department of Correction.
Joey was flattered by my comments on is writing. He said that he prefers drawing and told me his next letter will contain some of his visual art. This brought back memories of other talented clients.
While working in a ‘lock down’ treatment center with clients primarily from Drug Court and Missouri P&P we were required to occasionally search the clients belongings. We looked at everything. We read any correspondence they might have had. I felt at the time that the process was degrading and not helpful in the process of earning the necessary trust to counsel the clients – but it was what it was. During one such search I was reading some poetry written by a female client. It was well done – clearly there was talent. The next day I talked with her, I apologized for having read her personal writings, then told her I was impressed. I remember clearly that was in September of 2005. I remember because I followed her progress over the next several years.
I told her I believed she has great raw talent. At thirty-one years old she was another person who had little formal education. She had completed her General Education Degree (GED) for high school accreditation. We talked about plans for her future. I remember it was September because we made plans for her to quickly file her taxes for 2005 in January 0f 2006. She was to then take her tax statements to the financial aid office of the local four year college. She did. Financial aid was offered. She began her college career the following August. Four years later she graduated with a degree in Art Education. That’s what I’m talking about!
I am thinking about Joey. What is his potential? I tried to send material to him so he could explore his talent – but to no avail.
We are not done. We shall forge ahead. There is nothing more tragic than wasted human potential.
This post will be copied and printed – and sent to Joey.
We shall find a way.