Blog / Mass incarceration
Federico has been writing to me from his home, a prison cell in Pendleton, Oregon, for two months now. When I told him I like learning languages, he decided to begin each letter to me in a little of his native Spanish. “Hola mi amiga,” he usually starts.
In his last letter, he told me, “I don’t want to sound too forward…” but my letters to him have been a “breath of fresh air,” he said, a chance not to read about “drugs, parties or ‘the game’ that often comes with reading letters” addressed to him. “I hope that we can continue to write about inspiration, about getting ahead in life,” he told me.
Truthfully, I feel like it’s his letters that inspire me. They open me. Encourage me to look more deeply at myself and to share more fully. We’ve grown together.
So below is a letter I wrote in response to him that I wanted to share. Because his questions of me have led my unsuspecting self to express something inside me I hadn’t thought to articulate before. Another blessing dropped upon me from his letters.
*Before you read, a note for clarity: Federico is part of a puppy training program behind bars (JLAD) that allows incarcerated individuals to raise and train puppies for people with disabilities, veterans, and first responders. His mom and children attended his graduation ceremony, when he passed the leash of his first puppy to its recipient and new owner, beginning their lives together.
November 4, 2018
I must begin by thanking you for your patience with my reply. My days have been full, some feeling like marathons, and so I haven’t had the time I’d like to sit down and write to friends like you.
I truly appreciate your letters. Thank you for sharing the story of hearing your mom and children tell you they’re proud of you for the first time. I think too many of us spend far too much time thinking our loved ones know we love them, know we believe in them, without speaking those feelings aloud. Hearing that you’re supported, hearing that you’re cared for matters. It changes lives. I’m so glad you got to hear those words from them. May you continue to remember that you are making a difference with the work you’re doing, that your nurturing and training of these dogs will transform someone else’s life. That’s powerful and that’s purposeful.
In fact, I went on JLAD’s website and briefly checked out some photos before writing to you. But I didn’t spend much time on the site yet; I’m looking forward to browsing some more.
You asked me some interesting questions in your last letter. You told me you want to know who I was ten years ago to who I am now. I am currently 28 years old, so 10 years ago I was 18, getting ready to go to college. I was a good student, involved in several clubs in my school—Penumbra (the literary magazine), the Spanish Honor Society, and the National Honor Society—and graduated valedictorian. But I had not known compassion, or my own pain, in the ways I now know it.
The next ten years set me up to more fully know the range of human experience (though, of course, my journey remains limited. There’s so much I don’t know or haven’t felt). During college, I felt intense soul pain in a way I never felt before. I felt alone, like I didn’t belong and like communicating who I was in a way that was accepted was exhausting. I felt eager to live my fullness, yet opportunity felt foreclosed at every corner. I felt debilitating sadness, although I was always resilient, knowing in my bones that there was more. I felt the absence of joy and I felt the power of hope. For the first time, I knew the power of connection from its lack.
So these ten years have been a journey back to myself. Back to my voice. Back to my power. Back to connection. Back to joy. I’m still working on the joy part, the part of me that feels flooded with freedom and adventure and laughter and fullness. Again, I feel it in my bones: it will come.
Today, I know life not as black and white, but with the richness of grey. I know what it feels like to feel unheard, and so I want to honor as many voices as I can, which is why I do the work I do now. I know how words have changed my life—the power of setting myself free through writing—so I want to support others in finding freedom in their own voices, too. I know loneliness so I want others to feel less alone. I know what emptiness feels like, so I want to fill others with kindness and words of empowerment. Even just a smile. And I know the brilliance of our own spirits. Of what we can create when we come together. Of the adventures I get to go on simply by reaching out, listening, connecting. Of the magic of rising, again.
I know you asked me more questions than that, but just writing that out to you, getting to share it, has me feeling grateful and inspired, again. Reconnected to myself. So thank you.
I look forward to more letters between us.
If you’d like to read more stories like this, check out my most recent book, a co-creation with 12 individuals currently incarcerated across the nation: I Have Waited for You: Letters From Prison.
In this conversation, co-founder and She-EO of Adopt an Inmate, Melissa Bee, talks about transforming the prison system + the importance of holding people accountable while leading with compassion + humanity.
95% of state prisoners return home to their families + our communities. Melissa believes that, to heal, "People need to feel worthy."
*Image: A drawing sent to me from one of my "adopted" pen pals, Alicia, who is my age, a mother of two, and is incarcerated in Texas.
I discovered Adopt an Inmate on a whim that brought with it the weight of synchronicity and alignment. I had been led here—to wanting to converse with prison inmates—by reading. One book led into the other, from Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy to Shaka Senghor’s Writing My Wrongs and even Piper Kerman’s Orange Is the New Black. Slowly, as I read, I began to be moved by the injustice of the prison system, by the humanness of those who commit crimes and find themselves digging deep to survive behind bars, and by the urgency of change: we need to heal.
I am a healer by trade but I discovered, in these strangers navigating and narrating the prison system, a deep unsettling in the midst of us, of dis-ease. It is the core of our beings that needs to heal and the core of our society that needs to change, to find its way back to the way as many Native Peoples call the path of peace, balance, and belonging. We all have created this mess and we all must be part of its healing.
I also wanted to connect to inmates, particularly women in prison, because I believe they deserve to be heard. Because I believe they deserve to feel like they belong, to know they have support, community; to know they are loved. To know someone, many someones, believes in them. Regardless of who we are or what we’ve done, we all need and deserve this.
To achieve a peaceful world, we must create and communicate peacefully. We must extend peace to see it returned. We must exist out of love, communion; the spirit of oneness.
I am so grateful Adopt an Inmate has created a space for us to commune and heal. That they bring us, in our individuality, together as equals. That they allow humanity to transcend prison bars and prison walls. And that they are shining light on a system that is unjust, imbalanced; diseased. I’m honored that their work and the letters I share with my adoptees will not only, with any luck, give them hope and maybe even some joy, but that they will heal and teach me.
For every Face Oil sold, I donate $1 to Adopt an Inmate.
Yesterday, Melissa, the founder of Adopt an Inmate, asked me the most important question we can ask each other right now: “You okay, love?” When I responded, I returned the question to her: “You okay, love?”
Her response is wise and graceful and brave, and I’ve asked her permission to share it.
"I'm feeling exactly the same - absolutely shocked and appalled Tuesday night. Gut wrenching. And strangely empowered.
"As unprepared as I was for that outcome - my brother and I have agreed about the mission of AI (Adopt an Inmate). We know that in truth, our power is limited. That even though institutional changes may occur eventually, the most effective thing we can do, right now, is help people. Individual people. One on one.
"Wednesday morning I was still in shock, compounded by the fact that I was (so far) unsuccessful in getting a detainer lifted for an inmate who was supposed to be released that day - but would instead be transported back to county jail from prison because of a technicality. When I expressed how powerless I felt - a dear friend responded - let's talk about power. If the goal was getting him released today, then yes, you couldn't do that. But if the goal was letting him know that someone thousands of miles away cares about him enough to try ... he knows that now, and he's changed by that.
"Our votes and all our activism might not be enough to change a broken system in our lifetime. But we DO have the power to change people's lives individually.
"I DID manage to get that inmate released yesterday - and he has committed to give back to AI as an adopter and a donor.
"Individually, I can't change the outcome of an election. But I can help people help each other. And eventually, that will change the world."
As I've talked about before, I have been writing to two women who are incarcerated, through an organization called Adopt an Inmate. I believe that, no matter who we are or what we've done, we deserve to be heard, supported, and treated with the compassion our oneness demands. When I receive each woman's letters in return, I am blessed with unexpected love and gratitude, support and wisdom.
I've read some of the letters to my mom, who decided to send these women, both of whom are almost exactly my age, her own notes. Both women have very little, if any, contact with their own mothers so, in each note, my mom signs off by sending them her "motherly love."
I've excerpted the following from a letter my mom received from Britney, who is 27 and has been in solitary confinement without a window for four years and counting, 24 hours a day. The note is a reminder of Britney's humanity and our shameful practice of isolating individuals for years at a time, stripping them of community, movement, sanity, and the joys, wisdom, and lessons of the earth. Nature and friendship help us heal and grow; our practices of removing individuals from life are not only torturous, but illogical and irresponsible. If we send individuals to prison to "correct" them, then we must do everything we can to support them in acknowledging their actions, making reparations, and harnessing their past to transform themselves and their communities in the present. Failing to do so hurts us all. We must remember we are connected.
"I hope and pray all is well. . . . I thank you for your support and motherly love.
" . . . I moved to another cell! I have a window! I can't see much but a brick black wall and barbed wire but a cat comes to visit me every night. She's gray with light brown stripes. I named her Whitney, like Whitney Houston. I feed her scraps from my tray when I can. She's my friend, I talk to her, cry to her, and tell her my prayers.
"I had to be moved because my door was broken. So it was an emergency removal to another hall wing. I am grateful. Now I can smell grass and I got a bird feather, too!
"I hope to hear from you soon. God bless!"
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.”
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.
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.
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.
from me to her
July 1, 2016
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.
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,
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!