Never eat the candy on your pillow: the importance of letters
Designed by Rikki Li

Dear Reader,

This week I’d like to focus on the importance of communication. If you are drawn to this column, it’s likely because you are a family member of—or a friend to—someone in prison or your life has been impacted by incarceration. You understand the loss of no longer having your loved one in your life because they are locked away. This column is meant to be a balm for everyone in America who has been affected by the realities of mass incarceration. My letters to you are an offering—something that will help you understand what to expect from incarceration and provide guidance on how to handle the situations that are likely to arise in an incarcerated person’s life.

Before I continue, please allow me to introduce myself. I’m just like you; my life has been drastically changed by incarceration. My name is Derek. Pleased to meet you. I have been imprisoned for a little over 18 years. How are you? I want to create a dialogue between us, one that lets you know that I am concerned for your well-being. I also want to let you know that, though you might have been incarcerated or your loved one remains imprisoned, our lives go on. I ask you to recall the old adage, “gone, but not forgotten.” That’s the reality of incarceration. These people are gone from your home, life, and community, but they are not forgotten. Friends and family will still ask about them. Their children will keep asking where their daddies and mommies have gone and when they will be coming back. It is always important to keep in mind that the vast majority of people in prison will one day return. The goal is to keep in contact. Keep them grounded. Be supportive. Every incarcerated person’s fear is to be out of sight and out of mind. Even though they’re imprisoned, a person still has the ability—albeit severely limited—to play a role in yours, mine, and our loved one’s lives.

This is not the end. Far from it.

When I first stepped foot in prison, it felt like my life ended. I seriously felt worthless—not that I felt my life had much value prior to my crime, conviction, and ultimate incarceration. But upon entering prison, I actually felt more worthless than I ever had at any previous point in my life. Prison is designed to be demeaning, leading me to think of another old adage, “Something must be completely destroyed before it can be rebuilt.” But this implies a builder exists to do such a thing. Prison comes with no such builder or tools for my own personal reconstruction.

My partner, children, family, and friends were all locked away from me, separated by distance and razor-wire fences. Days became weeks that felt like years. Prison has a way of distorting time, and in no time at all, I felt entirely disconnected from life.

“Man, I’m telling you, that phone is the devil!” one guy said to another as they watched a man beat, pound, and slam the phone’s receiver into the wall after his call ended. “Ain’t no way I’m gonna waste my time trying to keep track of no woman out there. Damn fools don’t ever get it through their heads that it’s best to let ’em go and let ’em do things on their own terms.”

I had no such problems. I wasn’t able to make calls because my family was so poor that they couldn’t accept my collect calls. Apparently, they were also so poor they couldn’t even afford to buy a stamp, stick it on an envelope, and scribble a few lines on paper. This led me to complain a lot and gripe with anyone who’d listen about how prison was unfair. I was miserable, and so was anyone unfortunate enough to be within my proximity. A lot of this goes on in here.

Frankly, I became a real asshole. I resented anyone who received a letter at mail call, and jealousy, ire, and contempt festered while I watched others share their photos and cards with friends. I especially despised the guys who waved around their perfume-scented love letters. The smell of warm vanilla and brown sugar made me see red—and don’t even get me started on how I felt when visit days rolled around. My name never got called for visits. 

My life felt incomplete without the privilege of outside contact. A lack of phone calls, letters, and visits can make a person feel unloved. Unwanted. Worthless, even.

My favorite pastime was when I could morph into Mister Negative. My only pleasure came from watching fellow inmates receive unexpected Dear John letters or hearing the angry slamming of a phone receiver. My excitement knew no bounds when someone yelled into the phone about promises going unfulfilled or being lied to about money orders that were never sent. I wallowed in glee when some poor jerk spent all day grooming themselves, ironing, and cleaning their shoes, only to sit around waiting. Waiting, like me, for a visitor who never showed up. I allowed myself to become a world-class hater.

Then someone called me out on my foolishness.

When my birthday came around, I did nothing but mope and cry. I didn’t get a single card. Not a visit. No phone calls. Zippo. Nada. Nothing. My job at the time was as a janitor. I scrubbed toilets overflowing with urine, hair, discarded razors, and muck—all for 80 cents a day! It took two months of saving to purchase a cheap and crappy little AM-FM radio. 

I was wearing my radio on my birthday as I cleaned the bathroom for the third time when the correctional officer (CO) announced that I once again didn’t receive any mail. I seethed until the CO left the wing, and then I angrily slammed my radio down like all those guys slamming down the phone. For good measure, I stomped on my poor, little, defenseless radio until there was nothing left but tiny pieces. 

An old guy that everyone called Sandman watched me as I threw my fit. He wisely waited until my ire subsided before politely asking, “Do you feel any better now?” 

Sadly, I didn’t. 

I thought, please don’t ask why I destroyed the only material possession I owned. My little tantrum cost me two months of earnings, and it didn’t fix the fact that I didn’t get a damn thing for my birthday. Plus, now my foot hurt. 

I didn’t reply to Sandman. What could I say? 

“Perhaps ya should think before doin’ somethin’,” Sandman said. 

The rest of my birthday was spent in a black cloud, an angry maelstrom of negativity. I’m lucky someone didn’t beat my brains out. I was all but brand new in a strange environment, surrounded by murderers, rapists, drug dealers, and thieves, and I was throwing tantrums and celebrating the misery of others. If there was any place in the world I was likely to have my brains knocked out for acting selfish and disruptive; it was prison. 

What I couldn’t understand then is that nearly all of the men I was surrounded by had strolled a time or three in my shoes. They had all seen holidays, birthdays, and other special occasions roll by without an outside word, experiencing new disappointments amid a lifetime of letdowns and abandonments. What I was feeling was nothing new. 

By the end of the night, Sandman cornered me and asked if I wanted to talk about what was bothering me. I didn’t. So he talked. Sandman explained that he’d been in prison since he was 17. He was now nearly 70. I couldn’t fathom it. He said he noticed I didn’t get mail, visits, or money orders. 

“There’s a lot of us in the same floundering boat, young’un,” Sandman said. “So what’s the matter? It ya’ birthday or somethin’?” 

I nodded. If I opened my mouth to speak, I likely would have broken down crying. Sandman wished me a happy 27th birthday. He patted me on the back and then went about his business. 

I went to bed still angry but a tad bit less than before. The only happy birthday I received was from a complete stranger. The next morning, I woke to find a homemade card from Sandman that read:

Young’un, I ain’t never seent ya’ writin’ no letters to no damn body. How’s youse gonna expect what youse ain’t doin’ ya’self? If’n youse gets to writin’ and don’t no damn body write back, do it anyways. At least one o’ youse is doin’ the right thang. Get it off’a ya’ chest. Or not. Youse could always get to cryin’ about it. How long’d it take ya’ to buy that radio? Reckon ya’ might be needin’ another one, so youse can have another pity party? Happy Birfday!

I hid my smile. Prison has a sly way of stealing one’s joy if it’s shown too often. 

The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.

Derek R. Trumbo, Sr., a multiple-time PEN Prison Writing Award winner, is an essayist, playwright, and author whose writing has been featured in "The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting A Writer's Life...