By Treacy Ziegler
Armando Macias, prisoner at San Quentin, drawing from The Circle exhibition
Letters from prison
“But now you’ve got the gist
of what my letters mean.
You’re reading them again
The ones you didn’t burn”
Leonard Cohen, “The letters”
The letters seem to accumulate indiscriminately on the furniture surfaces of my home. At first, they were restricted to my son’s old bedroom, the room I use as a study. But in time, the letters began to gather on my piano, table, and chairs; albeit in piles – this one to answer first, that for later, and the largest pile looming, as a question mark for which there is no ready response.
It’s hard to throw out these letters from prisoners received through the Prisoner Express program; a program that develops distant learning for 4500 prisoners. Some are simple requests to participate in the program and are not difficult to put in the recycle bin. It becomes more difficult to toss out letters in which I am directly addressed or where the writer seems in need of a listener. Throwing out these letters, even when answered, feels like stamping upon the writer’s hope. So I keep them.
As an artist, I immediately experience the physicality of the letters; what in art school we referred to as “marks upon the paper.” Most prisoners’ letters are written by hand; although some are written on old-fashioned typewriters. The marks make evident the writer’s hand and, in doing so, convey something personal about the writer; sometimes even more personal than the actual meaning of the words. I feel Jerome’s hand holding the pen so tight and heavy that the reverse of his paper is embossed, creating its own beautiful surface. Or the tidy block lettering of Jimmy’s letters. I have boxes of letters from Clarence who writes almost daily. I’m drawn to his letters not so much for content but for the intensity and frenetic intent of the letter’s numerous pages, front and back, augmented by diagrams, pictures, and numbers referencing a religion of which Clarence knows or has developed for coping.
In the letters of the prisoners, I feel the hand that is rushed and the hand that has all the time in the world; writing slow and deliberate. I experience the smudged ink from the pressure of the hand or letters written upon stained paper – coffee, blood, whatever. Some letters are folded into tiny squares. Many letters are on cheap lined paper. Some letters are on recycled printed materials. Jeff writes from a California prison on the reverse of his in-prison offense notice sending him back into solitary confinement.
With 4500 prisoners in the program, it seems that correspondence would get lost in the avalanche of letters, and yet, there is something so personal about the marks on these letters that I often recognize someone’s letter upside-down from across the room just from their handwriting.
Interestingly, however, these penmanship marks can be more personal than the meaning of the words – at least the opening salutations which tend to follow a similar litany; “Hope you are in good health, hope your dogs are well, your husband is well, your son’s ok,” and if the writer were to know my neighbors, they, too, would be blessed with good health. Leon always begins his letters with a variation of his holiday season letter:
Greeting! Good day to you and everyone else. I hope you enjoyed the holiday season and Happy New Year. It’s a brand new year to start off on a good note. I hope you find yourself in the best of health and happy spirits.”
Yet, no matter how redundant the salutations may be, the opening greetings immediately express the writer’s hope for acceptance and to be taken seriously. I recognize this hope – thinking of letters I have written to galleries hoping they will like my art. But it is hard writing to an unknown person asking for validation of my worthiness, knowing more often than not it is futile.
I’ve received letters from prisoners with no written message. Derwin’s letters are often scraps of paper upon which he renders a drawing I sent to him. It may be Derwin doesn’t read and write. Some prisoners, like Jerome, learned to read and write in prison. Despite the limitations, Derwin’s letters testifies to the US postal service’s diligence. A letter from him, addressed with only my first name and zip code, successfully found its way to me.
Not all the letters seek acceptance; some seem to be a way for expressing remorse. Joe wrote about murdering his wife and the regret he experiences not only in murdering her, but the loneliness he feels without her. One could read this and become cynical – like well, what did you expect when you murdered her? But cynicism is quickly replaced by spending time in prisons and learning murder is a very complex phenomenon. I am convinced that anyone is capable of it but very few people who do, live without regret. I think about James who before murdering his girlfriend high on drugs never had a single violation – not even a driving ticket. Or Fred, who says until he murdered his ex-wife’s boyfriend in anger, “I used to be just a regular guy.” Tom writes of murdering his best friend who was also the father of his son’s best friend while high on bath salts and the pain and horror it caused everyone in his life. I experience genuine grief in these letters or statements made by prisoners in prison. The words do not seem to be statements to evoke my sympathy or said just because the individual ended up in prison, but explicit expressions of regret for what they did.
I haven’t experienced sexual advances or disrespect of any kind from prisoners while conducting workshops face to face in prison. Likewise, it is very rare to experience sexual references in the letters, although it happens. Some are comical. Logan writes imagining me as 20-year old with slinky blond hair covering one eye. I published a photograph of myself in the next newsletter to establish that, in fact, I was not a 20 year-old blond with a come-hither look, but a middle-aged woman. It didn’t matter. I could have published myself with big floppy ears and a single eye in the middle of my forehead; fantasies still occur.
Jonathan’ s three letters to me were in the style of a poem. In the first two letters, his verses expressed sexual desires toward me. His third letter, however, seems to offer an apology for his first two letters:
I’m sorry for writing you.
I’m just bored.
I’ve tried your program.
But I’m bored with it.
Likewise Garry’s letters contained sexual fantasies towards me. I write back telling him I know he doesn’t want to hurt my feelings by being disrespectful and that he will need to edit sexual material from future letters. Garry follows my request for a while, but then slips back to the sexual matters. I stop writing to him.
Reading Garry’s or Jonathan’s letters, I think about Mr. Warner, a 93-year old patient for whom I was responsible working as a nurse’s aid in an understaffed nursing home. I was 12 years old. It was a severe job forcing me into responsibilities no sane adult would have asked of anyone so young – bathing, dressing, nursing and administering medications to old, sick men. On occasion, I even had to wash and prepare bodies after death for the undertaker. One evening, while getting a roomful of men bathed and dressed for bed, it became apparent Mr. Warner was dying. “He’s probably good for an hour or two,” the head nurse said. Dying alone in a nursing home with just a 12-year old witness is so bleak that I wanted to provide something more dignified than the ice cream the nurse suggested me to feed Mr. Warner in his last hour. I found a Bible and holding it in my left hand, read, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.” Instead of dignifying his dying, I was shocked to find Mr. Warner’s hand trying to get up my skirt, forcing me to repeatedly swat away his sexually active hand with my free hand and, thus, making his sad death even more pathetic.
Manuel Gonzalez, III drawing for The circle show, prisoner in Tehachapi Prison.
Was it terror of impending death – the seemingly ultimate isolation – that reduced Mr. Warner to the biologic response of sexual aggression? I think about what Eric said, the program director at a prison where I teach. As we watched guards leading a young prisoner in handcuffs across the yard to the hole – his punishment for publicly masturbating – Eric said, “Some of the young kids who end up here are so reduced to terror and anxiety that that is all they can do. It’s ironic that the punishment is putting them into even greater isolation and terror.” But the prisoners in my class are less generous with their assessment, suggesting, “They’re not anxious – they raised themselves and had no one to tell them to keep it in their pants.” Whichever way one chooses to see it, do these acts of sexual aggression mask a state of terror?
More often than sexualized is the potential for the prisoner to idealize the writer. But pen pals are pen pals and when real limits are exposed, can be devastating to a prisoner. The prisoner Jackey had a Cornell student pen pal for the years she attended the university. When the student graduated and no longer wrote, Jackey became depressed. Although I didn’t fill the gap left by the student, Jackey continued writing to me deeply hurt by the loss of his pen pal:
“It is ridiculous that me, a 60 year-old man, would fall in love with a college student pen pal who I never saw and knew I would never meet. But I feel so bad and just can’t get over it.”
It’s probably not surprising that there are fewer women than men participating in the programs – there are more men prisoners than women prisoners. But it may also be how women prisoners experience their abilities. Katherine finished the Drawing from Life, a through-the-mail drawing course. It is a challenging course asking the artist to work from life instead of copying photographs. When I wrote to Katherine congratulating her on being the first women prisoner to complete the course, saying she deserved a prize, she wrote back,
“I’ve never won anything in my life, was never first at anything…. always last. I am so thrilled!” And then asked, “Could you give my prize to my daughter. It’s her birthday and I don’t have anything to give her.” I sent sketchbooks to both Katherine and her daughter.
Some prisoners write letters pontificating their incarceration with clichés heard on the prison yard. Reading these, I remember as a teenager yelling at my dad when he’d repeat, as truth, clichés heard at truck stops or bars, “That’s just crap you learned from your beer buddies – why don’t you ever think for yourself?”
Perhaps, I was a bit too harsh on my dad. Can anyone express clearly an experience of living without falling back on tidy slogans to describe that life? How more difficult is it for prisoners, who live in a world of controlled information and identity, to observe their experience without resorting to overused words and concepts? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben says it’s words themselves making us disabled communicators; disabled, because words are trapped in historical redundancy and cannot express the vibrancy and ambiguity of the presence. Somehow, Agamben suggests, we have to find a way to “say the unsayable.” Are the arts a way?
“Saying the unsayable,” demands the person giving expression be a keen observer; for without reflective observation, expression is fluff. Is it possible for prisoners to astutely observe the ambiguity of his/her experience; and in doing so, become powerful witnesses of incarceration rather than powerless prisoners?