By Virginia L. Kelley
“I never thought this is how I would be spending my life,” my oldest friend Gail said, holding back tears.
Last August, her son was sentenced to 25 years in prison, without chance of parole. Families of prisoners are warned not to “do the sentence” with the prisoner, but it’s impossible not to think constantly about your loved ones. The most you can do is write letters. They say mail time is the highlight of any prisoner’s day.
Jake has been in my life since the day he was born and is almost like my own child. He tells me getting letters helps him to remember normal life. I decided to write each week and include three allowable photos.
Composing letters while avoiding the many forbidden topics isn’t easy. I won’t talk about things I know he misses even though those are the very things that make up my life. Food, fun, celebrations, even a cup of rich, hot coffee. His mail is inspected and subject to being confiscated, so I absolutely will not discuss the injustice of his sentence, his living conditions, or anything to do with the prison system.
Sending treats is OK, every few months. Things we take for granted — very limited quantities of peanut butter, soup packets, tuna and hot sauce, for example. Never mind that they will be used to supplement the two meals he gets each Friday through Sunday.
The “long johns” Gail sent him have arrived and even though he’s told to come and get the package, trips to the mailroom are unfruitful, so he goes on living in an unheated, 60-degree space. So, what can I write about? My early letters were b-l-a-n-d.
Shared memories are good, but a picture I sent missed the mark and sparked a bout of sadness, which in turn made me feel so guilty that I began to question my mission. Accounts of daily activities are semi-OK, but I omit any aspect of dining, even breakfast at McDonald's, an everyday event we shared many times.
Sometimes it’s the memory of the dumb little things that hurt the most. I scoured websites on guidelines and topics for letters to inmates. I’ve included poems, inspirational quotations, high school and college reading lists thinking we could work our way through them, only to learn he can only get three shipments of eight books per year.
The simplest things can generate good stories. I could write about antics at the dog park, dogs walking on leashes, winter dog apparel, and, because I have almost sisterly knowledge of his mom, how cocker spaniels became her favorite breed. I keep open to ideas as I go through the day; squirrel nests in trees, musings on philosophical questions, things that make me angry, sad, discouraged or happy.
Gail has hired a new lawyer and early next year hopes to appeal Jake’s draconian sentence. I fear and dread the day the decision comes. Winning is the only hope for a future for him and the notion of losing is unthinkable.
Jake is a really nice guy who tried to make a blended family work. His stepdaughter’s accusations and a sloppy, almost nonexistent defense by a lawyer ended his freedom. Jake isn’t alone, by any means; guys get falsely accused and sent to jail every day. All we can do is show we care by taking the time to drop a letter in the mail.
Virginia L. Kelley, of North Tonawanda, is a loyal correspondent to her friend’s son while he is in prison.