Jail Mail, Snail Mail

I grew up in a time before emails, cell phones or texting. I called my high school friends using a land line (also just known as “the phone” back then). I sent people letters and got excited when they wrote back.

Now, I text. I email. I am completely dependent on the electronic world of instant contact.  The common question with friends my age is “how did we survive before..?”

We used to wait, that’s how.  Just like the Arcade Fire song by that name, people had to wait to communicate.

If your family moved you to a different town, then you and your friends wrote letters. Sometimes you even included pictures you’d taken with your 35mm camera and then had developed at a twenty-four hour Kodak kiosk in the mall parking lot.

Pictures were special.

Not so much anymore. I don’t even think twice about texting a picture of whatever random thing interests me…

“Hey check out this cute picture of my dog in his new sweater!”

“I made a tater-tot casserole. Not too shabby, right?”

“Here’s me drinking a smoothie! #IloveJambaJuice”

Now I’m friends with an inmate. Mail, both sending and receiving, is an extremely important aspect of his life… and pictures mean the world to them.

It must be a small escape from the tiny metal and concrete existence: a smiling face holding a smoothie and reminding them of a normal life.

I try to send something in the mail to Daniel every week. The process of sending and receiving “jail mail” can be much more complicated than a lay person might imagine.

contents_not_acceptedIt wasn’t long after we’d been writing back and forth that one of my letters was returned to me with “Contents Not Accepted” stamped all over the front and back.

Inside the envelope, which had been opened and then Scotch-taped closed again, was the greeting card I’d attempted to send to Daniel and an informative guide (with which I had clearly not abided) to sending mail to inmates.

Click for larger view.

It turns out that my “I’m thinking about you and hope you’re having a nice day,” card broke the infamous “BLACK PAPER NOT ALLOWED” rule.

Some of the mail rules are logical.  I get it; you don’t want me to send Daniel weapons or copies of Hustler magazine.  Ok.   Fair enough.

It’s hilarious that the rules specify “female nipples.”  How would a deputy know if a close up nip pic was of a male or a female, or even a human, for that matter?  The inmates see male nipples regularly, so I guess that’s why only the female ones are dangerous.

Why no black paper?  I ended up sending Daniel a photograph of the same card.  That made it through.  Why?

Daniel has told me that some deputies are easier going than others.  The newer ones are stricter with the rules.

I couldn’t help feeling bad for inmates who have young children. Nothing drawn in crayon or marker.   No glitter or glue.

I had another piece of mail returned because I wrote the address with a Sharpie marker.

You know, until I became friends with Daniel, I only bought postage stamps at Christmas time.   I’ve discovered that the USPS has some really cool stamps. Miles Davis stamps.  Barnum and Bailey vintage circus stamps.  Emancipation Proclamation stamps.

I really do try to follow the mail rules.  I find it kind of embarrassing when items get sent back.  Maybe my mail carrier knows about the nipple rule and wonders what kind of contraband I’m sending.  I envision myself chasing after the truck, waving the rejected envelope and yelling, “It was the black paper!”

Even though I know I’m not the only person writing to Daniel, I can’t help worrying that sometimes it might be my fault if he doesn’t get any mail.  As is, he generally sends three or four letters to my one.

And his letters are great!  My favorites include scripts of conversations Daniel’s had with guards and other prisoners, newspaper articles about his own case with penciled comments in the margins, and “kites.”

Yes, I will share some of the best ones with you in future posts.

I try to send him mail that will make him smile.  I include random pictures that entertain me:

A baby turtle on a human thumb.
My dog with his new tequila-bottle shaped chew toy (Dog Julio).
The heavy metal guitar guy from the new Mad Max movie (with flames shooting out of the guitar neck!)

My letters are mostly about my daily life.  You’d be amazed at how interesting a trip to the supermarket can be when you spend twenty three hours a day in a cell.  At least that’s what Daniel tells me.

Sometimes I worry that my stories might be silly compared to his life.

“Yes, there was a long line at Starbucks!”

Free People Problems.

Recently, Daniel asked me for the lyrics to three James Bond songs because someone at the OC jail claimed he could sing these songs if only he had the lyrics.

Sometimes I send “texts.”  Instead of actually sending messages to him throughout a day, I’ll put them in a document and then print it out.

I’ve even sent him print outs of comments left on this blog and the Facebook page.

I use up a lot more printer ink now, but it’s worth it.  Getting letters from me makes Daniel happy.  It improves his day.  It helps him take a mental break from his reality.

And I get to look forward to the mail again.

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