For nearly a decade now I've written weekly to three Jewish inmates in California prisons. Alan is one we have a special bond with. We visit him four or five times a year at the prison in Tehachapi. He will be released in 2017, which after nearly twenty-five years of incarceration feels to him like five minutes. Spuds is in elementary school when we first visit Alan and will (we hope) have graduated from college when Alan is released. Alan is a person I would choose, and am fortunate to have, as a friend. I enjoy our visits and reading his letters. I send him stamps and books and do research that he needs on my computer. When he leaves prison at age 57 he will have never operated a computer or even held a cell phone.
I become involved in the penpal program through Aleph, a Jewish service group. I tell them I'd like to write to a pen pal and they send me three names and addresses. I am moved that these three inmates have all asked to correspond with a Jewish person and I figure, “What the hell?” and write to all three. It does not occur to me when I send these first letters that inmates have a lot of free time. I've settled into a pattern of writing to each of them once a week. When I travel I carry address labels and send them postcards from wherever I am. I provide a little warmth and consistency. Maybe I nurture some goodness in people who have done terrible things. There are cards from all three for all of our birthdays, anniversary and every holiday. I had no idea what I was getting into when I sent those first letters. Only death will end these three relationships.
While Alan will be released and I know his life story and the details of his offense, the other two, Jim and George are sentenced for life without the possibility of parole. I do not know the specifics of their crimes and I do not ask. I know that both of them are not in good graces with the (mainly Orthodox) Aleph group because they are unable to prove their Jewish heritage. Having been connected with the penpal program is a fluke and both have been refused the ritual items and publications that Aleph sends off to Jewish inmates. Claiming a Jewish heritage is common in prisons as it entitles inmates to a Kosher meal plan which the rumor mill touts as being superior. It sounds, actually, more vile than the regular grub. Alan, who is able to prove his lineage, suffers with the Kosher plan for several years. All of the foods are shelf stable, bland and gummy. I am the one who encourages him to let it go and return to regular meals. I tell him that he's atoned enough and that for the sake of his mental health he should make his abysmal circumstance as tolerable as possible.
Jim tells me nothing at all about his life story except that he was in the service and at one time owned a furniture store. I have no idea if he is or was married or if he has children or any living family on the outside. He likes football and every year I print out the NFL TV schedule for him. He has a thing for Reba McIntyre. He types most of his letters. There are no computers available to inmates in California prisons. How weird it is that it seems so weird to receive a typewritten letter. Jim is often less upbeat than the other inmates. He complains a lot and actually, having visited a prison, he has a lot to complain about. Jim asks for more than the other prisoners although from the outside I can't provide much more than stamps and magazine subscriptions. Jim does often take the time to transcribe long jokes. Most of them are actually funny. Once he writes out one that is rather racist. The next batch of stamps I send him are Ray Charles and Rosa Parks commemoratives and there are no further offensive jokes. He particularly likes Spuds because of the sports affinity and I send off a prison-typical hand drawn Betty Boop birthday card to the boy at Bard which he is delighted to receive. Jim notes to me that he hopes he won't run afoul of the law for copyright infringement for the unauthorized use of the trademarked image. “But what could they do to me anyway?” he adds.
George is vague too, but his life sentence, he reports is due to being found guilty of conspiracy to commit murder. In his 70s, he is the oldest and most eloquent of the three. His letters are perfectly composed and written in an old school elegant hand. He sends me a tiny picture of an older man once but it may not be him. He writes proudly of a sister in Mississippi who teaches school. He brags about having had an insurance business and owning fancy cars and Rolex watches. I suppose he paints for me a picture of the person he wishes to have been. He is witty and funny and his veracity has never mattered. He keeps careful track of my family and as a former businessman is always curious about the operation of my company. His prison job is in the laundry and in vivid detail he describes the giant machines and steaming heat. When I tell him about the electric car he is skeptical and downright disappointed. He asks me to find him a copy of a prison newsletter that describes a program which grants compassionate release for elderly prisoners who have served at least 20 years. It is actually a bitch to track this down but I finally find it, print it out and send it off to him. Upon reading it, it looks to me like he might actually, despite his sentence of life without parole, be eligible for release.
I send all of the inmates my annual Rosh Hashanah card and realize that I haven't heard from George for a while. I know he is diagnosed as needing a heart valve replacement and he complains about waiting for the prison bureaucracy to make it happen. I think maybe he's finally gotten the surgery and is recuperating but it's starting to feel like a long time. I log on to the California Inmate locator website. I enter George's name. Nothing. I enter his inmate number. Nothing. Just to make sure it's not on the fritz, I enter Alan and Jim and their names and locations appear.
It is unlikely that a compassionate release could have come to fruition this rapidly. It is however very likely that the heart valve replacement is delayed in a mire of prison paperwork. George is incarcerated at the Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego. I try to phone. It will suffice to say that this results in nothing more than a wasted hour of my life and a reminder of prison personnel culture. I am finally connected to the counseling office. I leave a message. My call is not returned.
Finally, I try the office of the state prison ombudsman in Sacramento. I leave a message. A kind woman returns my call in less than an hour. George Brown passed away August 14. He never received the newsletter about the compassionate release program he was eligible for. The letters, stamps and Rosh Hashanah card I've sent have not been returned. Although I have no compunction about Alan, I admit there are times I feel burdened and wish I hadn't taken on Jim and George. Every letter from them in the box reminded my of a long haul obligation I'd naively gotten myself into. Letters from Jim and George always have an undercurrent of bullshit but despite the onus of having to answer each one, every single letter shows an effort to please me either with a funny story or a concern about my life. Having received a letter from me weekly for nearly ten years the inmates can better document my life than I probably could myself.
Several years ago I make the decision to get rid of all the letters. There are folders overflowing and individually none of them mean that much. Now, I wish I could go back through the letters that George sent me and look at the photo that may or may not have been of him. He's been de facto family for nearly a decade yet I have no picture of how he lived or died. Knowing what I do about prison life, I cannot bear, despite whatever horrible things he may have done, the thought of someone whose life has been intertwined with my own for so long, dying there alone.
At first I am reticent to recount to the prisoners any fun or adventure in my life which would make more harsh the sting of their own bleak surroundings. Over time though I realize that my weekly travails bring color and a help satisfy a longing for the outside world. Just like the letters I receive from prison are often more than a little revisionistic, my weekly notes are written for an audience far different from the people I address here. The commitment to the inmates is like a mandate to live a life that someone, stripped of everything that I find important, will take comfort in hearing about. Knowing that people who are invested in my life molder in prison cells compels me to savor my good fortune all the more.
When the penpal project starts I am a temple member and many of the early letters are about Jewish holidays and customs. This year, for the first time in over twenty-five years I am at the office on Rosh Hashanah. Our temple membership has lapsed and we will be absent on Yom Kippur too. I no longer feel the comforting presence of the ineffable when I sit in a temple pew. My prayers there are rote and provide no sense of a greater connection. It is the season of atonement and this year I honor it with silent retrospection. I am unmoved by communal prayer, but the bigger thing, the real Jewish thing to me, Tikkun Olam, to heal the world, still resonates. George was likely a liar and a killer but he knew my life and he tried to make my laugh. He never missed my birthday. The thought of his death hurts me more than I ever imagined possible. But maybe in some way our correspondence during the last years of his life made him better too. At least I am better for knowing this and I like to believe that a killer remembering my anniversary means that the world has healed a tiny bit.
Illustration: Mordecai Ardon: Missa Dara