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.

Who wants to write about an accused murderer? I do!

(Post 7)
Pat asked me again why I wrote that first letter.  I felt it was fair to let him know I want to write about him.  I don’t understand why it mattered to me, except that he’d asked me to be honest.
So here’s what I said (and it was all true):

I don’t have one simple answer for that.  I definitely have a strong curiosity about you.  I have since you were arrested.

I’ve always had an interest in crime and criminal acts.  I don’t mean for that to sound ghoulish or morbid.  I just want to figure out what makes a person tick.  The people who do the things most outside of society’s norm are the ones who fascinate me the most.

You have to admit that upon first hearing about the crimes for which you’ve been accused, most people will immediately assume you are a monster.

However, that is such a simplified response.  The man I met four years ago did not appear to be a monster, and these well written and thoughtful letters you’ve sent me have only made me even more aware of your humanity.

When you were arrested, I was immediately creatively drawn to your story. I felt that there was so much to explore about you and your life.  I wanted to write about you or write something inspired by you.  I really wanted to understand you…

Who is this man accused of such heinous acts and how is he the same creative, funny and seemingly kind person who is writing to me about helping a fellow inmate get his GED?

Who was he before and how in the world did he get here?

How do you feel about me or anyone wanting to tell your story?

I was super nervous Pat would just stop writing me all together.  He is facing double-murder charges after all.  Maybe he’s not interested in making friends with someone who wants to “tell all.”I just felt like I had to be upfront.  At least “up-fronty.”

When it comes to this blog, I’m taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach.  Pat hasn’t asked me if I’ve written anything yet, and I haven’t volunteered the information.It’s not like he has Internet access anyway.

So far, I haven’t posted anything I wouldn’t want him to read.  I’m not painting him in a bad light. I’m just being honest.OK, the description of the crime doesn’t make him look good, but I’m just saying he’s accused. Anything I wrote could be found with a basic Internet search.

I did say in the first post that I think he’s guilty.

I do.

Guilty of what precisely, though… I don’t know.

During our last visit, Pat even hinted that he is not completely responsible for this crime.
Then who is?
Then why confess?
I did not ask those questions.Yet.

My First Mail From Jail

February 2015

(Post Four)

When I got a letter back (dated August 31, 2014), I was giddy with excitement.  Just seeing the red “Inmate Correspondence” stamp on the front of the envelope got me all a-twitter.

The second thing I noticed was the incredibly neat printing on the address.  In pencil.

Inside was a three page letter on two sheets of yellow legal-sized paper (the first page with both sides filled) written completely in pencil in that super-neat printing.

Pat’s First Letter From Jail To Me

He began by apologizing to me.

I didn’t expect that.  I didn’t think he owed me an apology, but I think he has a lot of general guilt about any trouble he caused to anyone when he was arrested.

The truth is: that poor little theatre was on its last legs financially and I’m pretty sure that the publicity from his story did not hurt us at all (“if it bleeds it leads”).

Nonetheless, I thought it was a nice gesture on his part, assuming it was genuine and not just “the right thing to say.”

He thanked me for writing to him and, logically, asked me why I did.

He talked about how much he had loved acting in plays and how it was easier pretending to be someone else rather than being himself.  This was right after Robin Williams had killed himself, and Pat mentioned that he’d always been a big fan.

He talked about depression and suicide attempts (both considered and actualized: Pat tried to kill himself soon after his arrest and ended up in a coma).

He wrote about his fiancé.   Now, she was his ex-fiancé.

She had been his only friend and his life had revolved around her.  He was devastated when, after he’d been in jail for three months, she cut off all communication with him.

Truth be told, I wasn’t exactly surprised that she’d “dumped” him, considering the situation.

It wasn’t just that he was being charged with murdering two people. She actually ended up getting arrested herself as an accessory after the fact. She’s out on bail and is also “awaiting trial.”

Did I mention that she was on Dr. Phil?

Pat talked about life and freedom and lack of freedom, and making a difference, and doing what you can to make things better no matter your circumstances. He’d just helped his “celly” pass the GED.

He talked about God.  He asked me to not characterize him by the crimes that put him there, but by the man he is today.  He hopes I can see that he is not an evil man.

He went on to tell me that he’d been using a lot of drugs at that time in his life  (when he was doing the play at my theatre and getting arrested for double murder).  He abashedly admitted it was a very “foggy” time for him, and that he wasn’t sure if he remembered me, but a picture would help refresh his memory…

I immediately went looking for pictures of me where I look cute.


Why Did I Write an Accused Murder?

February 2015

(Post Three)

So. Why did I write Pat in the first place?

And why did I wait 4 years to do it?

My family members have asked these questions.  My friends have asked these questions.  The guards at the jail where I visit Pat have asked these questions.

Why I Wrote An Alleged Double Murderer

The first reason:  This!  What I am doing right now: writing.

I won’t deny it: this guy is FASCINATING!

I wanted to know more.  I wanted to understand.  It’s obvious that there is one hell of a story here, and I wanted to write about Pat. What I’d write was still beyond me, but I wanted to write.

I decided the best way to get this going was to write him a letter.

I didn’t know how to send a letter to someone in jail, but I figured there was some type of protocol.

It took a little searching, but I found out Pat’s birthday (he’s about to turn 31), his full name, his arrest date and his booking number.  The booking number is most important.  You need to put it on the mail you send, and you need to give it to the guards when you visit.
During this Internet searching, I discovered Pat’s trial still hadn’t happened!  I occasionally wondered why I never heard any news or gossip about him. I had no idea he’d been sitting in jail… waiting… all this time.

Right now, he’s in a sort of holding location where most of his fellow inmates will be in and out in a couple of months.  They will either finish their trials and be moved to a prison to serve out their stay, or they are only in jail for a couple of months for some relatively innocuous crime (drug possession or something like that).

Yes, this means I can actually go to Pat’s trial!

This brings us to my second reason for starting this relationship.

I love crime shows!

I don’t mean CSI type dramas.  I’m an ID Addict.

Investigation Discovery is a cable channel that shows non-stop true crime shows like Dateline.

I’m a huge fan of Dateline.  I also love Homicide Hunter, Murder Next Door, A Crime to Remember, True Crime with Aphrodite Jones, Most Evil, 20/20 (when it’s a crime episode and not some boring “my neighbor from Hell” story), Murder Book, On the Case with Paula Zahn… etc. etc.   If a show has the words “Evil,” “Murder” or  “Homicide” in the title, it’s on my TiVo list.

The contents of my bookshelf include The Encyclopedia of Serial Killers, Welcome to Hell: Writings and Letters from Death Row, Helter Skelter, Last Meals (yup, just lists of final meals of inmates before being executed) and many worn out paperbacks about Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Richard Ramirez, David Berkowitz (Son of Sam), Zodiac, BTK, Jeffrey Dahmer… well, you get the picture.

So, I have this (possibly unhealthy) obsession with crimes and killers, and BAM: here is a possible killer who I’ve actually met!!

I’m super fascinated with what makes a person confess to a crime they didn’t commit. I’m in no way saying that this is the case with Pat, but let’s keep an open mind here, people.  If any of you are familiar with the case of The West Memphis Three, then you know sometimes people really do confess to doing some pretty horrific stuff, even when they didn’t do it.

Just sayin’.

Anyway, I wrote a letter to Pat.

Keep in mind that we had only met briefly before his arrest; I wasn’t exactly writing to an old friend.   I was nervous about it, too.  I had no idea if he would remember me or write me back, and if he didn’t write me back… how in the world would I ever be able to write about him?

Also, what do you say to someone who is in jail and being accused of some seriously heinous stuff (double murder and dismemberment of one of the victims)?

Well, I talked about how crappy the dressing rooms had been at our theatre.  I also mentioned that he’d been a huge topic of conversation around the place after he was arrested.  I asked some questions about the truthfulness of Orange is the New Black (LOVE that show and wouldn’t care if it was all lies… but it’s not).

It wasn’t a long letter. Only 3 paragraphs.

He replied to me right away!

My New Friend is in Jail

January 2015

(Post One)

I have a new friend.

Actually I met him for the first time in 2010, but he really only became my actual friend until a few months ago when I first wrote him a letter.

He is in jail.

He’s “awaiting trial.”  He’s been waiting a long time, too – 4 years and 7 months so far.  That is a longer-than-usual time to wait for your trial.  It’s especially a long time if you sit inside a cell 22 hours day.   My friend is being charged with “special circumstances,” so he can’t get bail, and the prosecutor is asking for the death penalty.

Let’s start by saying that I am NOT going to use my friend’s name in this blog; at least not at this point.

Obviously, anyone could Google what I’m going to tell you about the case.  You could find out my friend’s name and all about his alleged crime.  I’m not trying to hide anything, but I watch a lot of TV, and I figure if I don’t say his name, then nothing I write can be used against him in a court of law.

That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.

I’m going to call him Pat.  My friend Pat, who is in jail.

When I first met Pat back in 2010, he was acting in a play at my theatre.  I’m calling it my theatre because I was one of the people who helped with the day-to-day running of the place.  I was a company member and a director.

Pat was just around for one show.  Even though he was the lead actor in a musical running at the theatre, it was Pat’s first time acting there.

The show was doing well and it was making money. That was all that mattered to me.

So, even though Pat was just a visitor, I liked him.  I didn’t think he was the greatest actor in the world, but he was doing a good job in the show and audiences responded well to him.

I started eyeing him for my summer musical.  He seemed like a nice guy.  He was good-looking and personable.  He was funny and polite.  He was even engaged to one of the actresses in the show,  and they were getting married the next week!  He seemed like he had his life pretty organized (at least organized enough for an actor in community theatre).

I chatted up Pat when I was house managing for his show one night.

This theatre was really small.  There were a lot of people in Pat’s show, and he ended up having to use the theatre’s office for his dressing room (he was the only man in the show).    I was selling tickets and snacks from the front of the office, while Pat was hanging out “back stage” in the back of the office.

A makeshift curtain hid him from the audience. He made me laugh, because every time someone would order a soda, Pat would hand it to me through the curtain.

A few days after the show ended, Pat was arrested.

He was at a restaurant having an impromptu bachelor party with some of his buddies.  The Sheriffs swarmed in and arrested him just as he’d finished paying the check (a fact that annoys him a bit).