An intimate photo series of letters from my prison pen pals
For years, my most intimate stories were always about myself — about my disturbing love life or my accidental meth habit. At a certain point, I began to feel like I’d bled myself dry of profound stories from my past.
So I decided to seek out new story-tellers. I wanted a fresh perspective, a powerful narrative, and a message that could invoke a raw, emotional response. I searched for my new muse… in prison.
Despite my mother’s pleas, I joined a prison pen pal program. I reached out to 3 prisoners with a proposition to share their stories. I didn’t think it was a very tempting offer — to air their dirty laundry for the widest possible audience. I assumed I’d be rejected several times before finding a willing correspondent. I was wrong.
I made pen pals of all 3 prisoners: Antoine in California State Prison, Corcoran. Christopher in Louisiana State Penitentiary. Tony in Massachusetts Correctional Institution. They were locked up for myriad charges, from burglary to kidnapping to homicide.
All three men were convinced that theirs was a story worth sharing. They pitched me possible titles for the book I'd be writing about them. They assured me we’d “make magic together.”
However, my pen pals would never discuss the choices that landed them behind bars. To me, it seemed like a natural first step: to address the circumstances that allowed our very strange relationship to form. That allowed me to find their profile on PrisonInmates.com or WriteAPrisoner.com, and compelled us to communicate in this antiquated form, like folks used to do in centuries past.
Antoine talked mostly about working in telecommunications or working at fast food restaurants, about making music, and about his faith in God. He drew me pictures, sent photos and postcards.
Chris focused on ex-girlfriends or frustration about how he hadn’t gotten laid in a long time. He sent me long questionnaires of sexual questions. “Have I ever let a man fuck me in the ass? Have I ever let a man shoot cum in my mouth and all over my lil pretty face?” He asked for money grams. His exes and baby mommas had cut him off.
Tony didn't have the chance to share much, as I stopped answering him after only a couple of exchanges. He was a convicted murderer, and that made me feel even more uncomfortable than my drug kingpin’s unsolicited sex surveys.
When I wrote back, I asked for straight answers about how they ended up in prison. If they believe their sentence fitting for their offenses. If they feel detention has truly rectified them.
But they endlessly dodged my questions, as if they might still be believed innocent of their crimes.
Dozens of letters later, I gave up on getting simple answers from these men. About telling some significant story that they themselves didn’t want to disclose. So I gave up, believing it was never my responsibility to ascribe meaning to someone else’s grave mistakes.
In the end, this was another story about my failure to find a new perspective. Another story about myself.