Letter from Prison, From Hopeless to Bizarre

View Comments ()
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    Getty Images
    Letters that arrive in the Star-Telegram offer a glimpse into the minds of the incarcerated.

    Locked inside Texas prisons and jails, offenders are forever casting their version of a message in a bottle.

    "To whoever reads this,

    "Please, maybe you think my story is nothing. But I am in a jail for something I didn't do. I start to lose my head and I'm talking to myself. I don't sleep no more. Help me ..."

    Letters from prisoners arrive in the Star-Telegram mailroom with relentless regularity.

    Carefully folded, they are often in envelops bulging with copies of case filings, affidavits or grievance reports against jailers.

    Some lead to articles. Others, too numerous to investigate, are filed in a metal cabinet. Texas inmates sent 413,000 items marked "media" or "legal" last year, prison officials say.

    To peruse the letters is to get a glimpse into the minds of the incarcerated, the hustlers and the repentant, the articulate and the belligerent, the hopeless and the bizarre.

    "They spend hours writing those letters to everyone and anyone; it's all they have to do," said Jerry Huff, a former Texas Department of Criminal Justice employee who runs a prison ministry. "Lot of them try to sell you a hog -- they lie to you, looking for any angle to get out. Then some are sincere and mean every word they tell you."

    Considering the number of convictions overturned by new DNA evidence, a few are likely the voices of innocent men and women.

    Some letters are short and scribbled on paper scraps. Others are lengthy narratives, 10 or more pages of lined notebook paper recounting in detail what authorities used against them. Many claim innocence, blaming lying witnesses, incompetent lawyers and vindictive prosecutors.

    "I want to tell my side of the story, how I was set up, then forced by police brutality to sign a typed up statement."

    Many letters complain of inadequate medical care, of jailers ignoring injured prisoners and of missing medications.

    Others have lost all touch with reality.

    "Dear News Reporter,

    "I am desperately trying to continue American Expansion. The first nation to control the mood shall be the dominant military, social, political and economic powerhouse of the next century. The fusion potential of Aster fuel on the moon is incredible.

    "I have 6.9 million acres on the moon reserved for the good and fair people of Texas."

    Some prisoners aim to entice, offering juicy information for a favor in return.

    "Let's get right to the point. I've got inside information on the Bandits and Aryan Brotherhood operating right here in Fort Worth. ... If you're interested, I'll explain what I want."

    Paranoia about who is reading their mail runs deep. Several scrawl "Media Only" in giant letters all over the envelope and include instructions for jailers to mail them unopened. Some letters arrive at the newspaper opened and taped shut again.

    "Attention: Licked sealed. If there is tape, please tell me!" one prisoner implored.

    In state prisons, all mail is screened, said Michelle Lyons, a Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman.

    State inmates buy stamps and writing paper in commissaries. Indigent offenders are supplied materials and postage for up to 10 letters a week.

    Many put time and care into their letters. Neat, exact cursive or print never drifting off the lines suggests a scribe slowly penning each sentence, reviewing each thought, every word being crucial to the message.

    Others are illegible, the inmate's story lost in multiple pages of miniature, dense or childish scrawl.

    Letters also include heartfelt cries for help. One inmate wrote that his upcoming release worried him. He was afraid he would fall into old drug habits and let his family down again.

    "I must have some help to destroy this crack addiction. It has destroyed my teaching and coaching career. I am writing to you because you might know people who can help me.

    "I would rather die than live this lifestyle anymore."

    Some writers include artistic touches, morbid or otherwise.

    One prisoner sent a convoluted flowchart with sketches depicting a person with a knife, a pig and gravestones. In giant letters, he titled it, "A Ghoulish Capital Punishment."

    Another inexplicably drew two Champagne glasses clinking on the front of his envelope; inside was a letter complaining about how long it was taking for his case to go to trial.

    Some offenders are simply unhappy newspaper subscribers.

    "I would like to know why the only sales pages I receive are for Academy Sports along with the Parade section in Sunday's paper. Thank you for your time assistance in this matter."

    Other inmates offer constructive criticism for society, including one who decried the inclusion of murder mysteries among books donated to prisons.

    He lambasted "the public" for condemning convicts and then offering them violent books.

    "There are many people in here who are willing to learn trades through reading ... these bloodthirsty fictionalized novels. These already lawless individuals have nothing to do but soak up the gore."

    Other prisoners have noticed the success of reality stars. One recently proposed: "I would like to know if you would be interested in a weekly series of stories of my journey through the correctional system.

    Interested media outlets should contact his sister, the letter said.