Letters from Solitary Confinement | ASHLEY ASTI

I wrote to Britney after I read a letter she had written to the San Francisco Bay View paper. “I am writing seeking justice, help and assistance,” she explained in the article, “fighting the cause for women in Texas prisons.” Indeed, this cause is bigger than her; she is one bold voice in a movement toward humane treatment of all beings, even those in prison.

Britney has been held in prolonged solitary confinement for four years, and is still confined there, reaching the world beyond her cell walls through public pleas for justice: “I am a walking, living proof of a life that has been pulverized, destroyed and abandoned by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice,” she writes in the Bay View, describing being denied “sleep, nourishment, clean ventilation, peace and privileges.” Her article lists egregious excesses of power and grievances, including abuse, excessive ‘use of force,’ threatening language and racial epithets by guards (we often forget that words spoken without recognition of spirit or a shared human connection are dangerous, too), and denial of the incarcerated women’s rights to medical and psychological assistance. “We need help!” she writes. “I suffer daily for the wrongs I have or have not committed along with other women who don’t deserve ‘double jeopardy’ punishment and abuse. Just being in prison is punishment enough.”

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After reading Britney’s words, I took her address posted at the bottom of her article and wrote to her to offer my support and our birthright of being heard. “I want you to know that I hear you and I believe you,” I wrote, “and I believe in you, too.” Below is the letter she wrote back to me and the words I wrote in reply.

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Britney has given me full permission to share her words, but as I sat down to decide what to do with them—how to present them?—I struggled with whether I should share her writing in its entirety. I worried that our letters, side by side, would leave a subtle, but unnerving sense of difference, that the contrast would be jarring. I worried whether her letter, in its entirety and on its own, would be believed, respected. Will people feel her, I wondered, will they take her seriously? So I started composing a version of this where I included only excerpts of her writing. I’m not sure whether I was trying to protect her or me or the truth of what’s hiding in her bold voice, as it stood there in its weakness and its strength on its own, no protection, no filter.

And that’s when it came over me: I cannot censor her. If I want to hold a space for voices that have been forcibly pushed underground, out of sight—even for voices of people who have made huge mistakes—I must do just that: hold the space for those voices to speak in their fullness. To express themselves as exactly they are. I cannot hide her desperation (even if I didn’t want to see that that is part of her experience), cannot cover up her pleas to God because that is all real. That is what solitary confinement has done to her—and we must see it. 

And, yes, it may be unnerving. My ease of writing—typed, emailed, with lines from poems and the advantage of the internet—shows my privilege and my place of relative freedom outside prison walls. Her labored writing, handwritten on a small bit of paper she has purchased from commissary, speaks to the contrast—not of our humanity, but of our situations. No human deserves the kind of punishment that strips them bare of their humanity even as they live and breathe. This kind of punishment lowers us, too. It dehumanizes us, too. Ninety-five percent of people who are imprisoned get released. We must offer a punishment that allows each individual to make amends, to grow, to heal, to come to terms with what they’ve done, and to honor their victims as best they can. Otherwise, we are setting ourselves and them up for a future on the outside that is just as dangerous, just as peace-less.

“Well what has put her there?” my brother asked me about her time in solitary confinement, meaning she must have deserved this treatment in some way. “Nothing can warrant this,” I said. Justice matters. Atoning for our sins in a way that teaches us our life lesson and supports the health and peace of our communities matters; we must spend our lives making up for our wrongdoing. Caring for our victims matters even more. But twenty-three or twenty-four hours a day in a room with no natural light, no touch, no human connection, little or no human voices day after day, sometimes year after year—how does one survive that? How is that human? A UN Report declares that solitary confinement for upwards of 15 days is torture. And, maybe more importantly, solitary confinement fosters isolation and disconnection; once again, a breeding ground for further violence.

If it were me, I don’t know that I could make it. I don’t know that I could remain human.

So below are her words and my words in their fullness. May her voice soar.

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from her to me

June 27, 2016

Hey! God bless you Ashley . . . 

I appreciate you & want to thank you for taking the time out to contact me during these tribulations and evil time. I received your JPay [letter] and I was comforted and felt your support and concern. I must say I am hanging on only by the strength of the Lord. This place is worse than hell itself. My article in the SFBV [San Francisco Bay View] is only a brief summary of what evil and hatred lies in the wake of darkness. I succumb to Gods word so I refuse to be defeated, therefore I just trust in Him to conquer this battle that is His, in which has already been won. Amen? Yes, I still suffer, I’m just praying my petition falls through and the federal courthouse acknowledges my concerns and grievances. I hope I’m released from Ad-Seg [solitary confinement]. I appreciate you and by all means, whatever way you can lend aid and assist me in letting my voice be heard, please do so. God bless you Ashley. My main goal is to go virile (viral), social media, newspapers every city, every state. Justice is what I seek. I’ve been stripped of everything in life except my dignity and morals. This place has stolen my joy, hope, and respect. All I have is my sanity to cherish and utilize to fight for the cause.

. . . I hope and pray this missive reaches you in good spirits and uplifts you just as your words uplifted me. Being captive in a cell 24 hours a day with no access to normal society is torture. I suffer from inhumanity daily and it takes a toll on my mental and emotional stability. A mind is a terrible thing to waste so I do my best to keep busy reading everything there is to learn about every subject on earth. I exercise everyday to stay positive and healthy. But at the end of the day, the abuse I suffer overrides the optimism and I become pessimistic. Sad to say but true. Growing up in a broken home I am accustomed to being on my own and having no support. So getting your letter truly encouraged me to keep going, don’t give up because somebody cares, even if I don’t have family. I wanted to thank you again for writing to me! God bless! Feel free to write me anytime. I will write back. Take care and write soon.

God Bless!

Britney

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from me to her

July 1, 2016

Britney,

I received your letter this morning and feel blessed by your spirit and your words. And it feels, to me, like divine timing. Just this morning, I was wondering how to find my own path to peace, how to welcome in acceptance. “I just trust in Him to conquer this battle that is His, in which has already been won,” you write. “Amen?” Amen. Your words speak to and through me. 

Before even receiving your letter, I wrote about you. I shared your article in the Bay View and I emailed the Bay View’s editor with gratitude for her creating the space in her newspaper to share your vital and courageous words. She wrote back to me, “I was especially thrilled to get that letter from Britney. . . . Though many women in prison use our free pen pal service, few write the brave truths that she did. I hope her story will empower more of her sisters.”

She also reminded me that women in prison are so vulnerable and that it takes courage just to be a subscriber to her paper—I had almost forgotten. I had almost forgotten what depths of courage you had to reach into, what strength, what boldness in the face of uncertainty it took to share, publicly, your plight. I had forgotten because your personal, spiritual power oozes out of every word of your article and your letter to me. 

You wrote to me, “I hope and pray this message reaches you in good spirits and uplifts you just as your words uplifted me.” I thank you for this, as well, a reminder not to let the darkness of your circumstances blind your light. As I read your letter, I love how it feels lived in. Your hands have held the paper I find in mine; your letter carries the intimacy of touch across space and across time. And in your handwriting, I get to discover the shapes that are uniquely yours. 

Your letter is full of weight, too. “I suffer from inhumanity daily,” you write, and reading this pains me. “Being captive in a cell 24 hours a day with no access to normal society is torture.” I didn’t expect to feel you so deeply, to take on your pain, but I cried for you when I held and read your words. I cried for all of us, this is how low we have sunk. I write to you on Friday, July 1, a day that marks a weekend ahead of celebrations of our national liberty. Yet we don’t know we’re still in bondage; how can we be free when we inflict such torture on our brothers and sisters? We are one, and we forget that too often.

But you are so wise: still, your letter uplifts me. Because your spirit is unconquerable; its beauty and power and brilliance unquenchable. This morning, I discovered this poem by Laura Weaver. It begins,

There is a place within

that cannot be destroyed

by flood or fire

by bloodthirsty armies

or devastating illness—

it is this untouchable essence of us

that quakes with irrepressible light

and bears the intolerable weight

of all that must be felt to awaken.

 

It ends,

 

Before I came to this life,

I was shown this world

from the distant shores of it—

and in that moment, I saw

the full arc of my days here,

the exquisite range

of this embodied dreaming.

Oh how beautiful, I cried.

Oh how terrible. 

Oh—This terrible beauty.

And the angel who guided me

simply pointed and nodded,

and said—Yes.

May you find a ferocious self-love rolling through you at every moment you feel disrespected, dehumanized, silenced. May you know that inside you is that untouchable essence of you that quakes with irrepressible light. Yes, may you know how brightly you shine and that this magnificent, interconnected universe—God, if you’d like—is always with you. Always.

And so am I. 

Britney, keep writing. I will keep sharing your story. And I will also share every moment of peace I can extend across time and space to you. 

For a sense of normalcy and so you can put a story with my name, I will share a little more about me with you. I am 26-years-old and live with my parents and my older brother in New York on Long Island. I am a writer and creator of an organic skincare line, meaning I create oils and creams to nourish our bodies, oils and creams that come from plants that are not sprayed in toxic chemicals like pesticides or herbicides. Our earth and our bodies deserve peace, respect, and love. My mission is to celebrate and honor those who wear my skin creations. I do not wish to make anyone “look better,” but to accept everyone as who they divinely are. Because there is beauty in authenticity, in being exactly who you are.

You wrote, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste so I do my best to keep busy reading everything there is to learn about every subject on earth.” I am an avid reader, too. Am I allowed to send you books if they come from a publisher, like Amazon? Is there a list of books that are accepted and those that aren’t? I will do some research on this. 

Are there photos I can send you, reminders of things you love? Pictures of gardens, animals, sports—anything. 

Britney, I send you all the comfort I hold inside me. Once again, I believe in you. You are not alone, even in your loneliest hours. If I could, I would wrap you in a bear hug!

In friendship,

Ashley

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