One week after moving to New York City, I spoke to my cousin who lives in the South. She asked how things were going, and I wasted no time bragging on the perks of living in a place with such diversity. I insisted the restaurants were better, the weather was better – a lie from the pit of hell seeing as I’d moved in the middle of a February winter – and yes, even the people were better.
“You grew up here, so you know what racism is,” she said. “But let me tell you something else. Do you want to know what the difference between White people in the North and White people in the South is, Jasmine?—”
“Whites in the North will look at you and think of you as a nigger, and smile in your face. You’ll ride in the elevator with them and never know they hate you. But here, in the South, White people will tell you to your face. They’re honest, especially the older ones, they’re honest. And I’d rather live with people like that.”
You understand as I well as I do that my cousin is in a mental prison, and of her own choosing. She is conditioned to think this way. She has had her name taken away from her and replaced with a hateful word too many times, and now she is a product of wrong-thinking. What can set her free?
In a real prison, your serial prison number is far more important than your name. I don’t know what could better express the message – that you’re not a free person, that you’re property, and that you’re bad – than stripping someone’s name away from them. To be called a number is more humiliating than it appears on the surface. You strip them of identity, then of individuality by dressing them in like manner, and then you debilitate their desires with a long sentence. You de-humanize, and then you control.
Like a car accident, I can’t look away from prison. I have googled my prison pen pal, Mary, three times, although to be honest with you, I never should have. And if you agree to join me in my newest quest – an “idea” as my husband calls it, and for the record he says I can’t have any more after this – then I strongly suggest you let the Lord do the revealing, and not the internet.
Look, I don’t know how to explain how I got into this situation other than to say– I’m tortured. I should find a better word, something that sounds more positive and less ‘I’ve-got-voices-in-my-head’…but I am absolutely tortured at times by this idea that a difference can be made in this world, and not only through prayer but by action. I have yet to be able to even properly express it to Brandon, my husband. (I am so grateful you read this, love. My simple brain travels too fast for my mouth, so I write!) At other times, I am at peace, just a normal girl getting a double scoop of ice cream, wondering when the next episode of an MTV challenge show comes on. And who can blame me?—ice cream is good, and we’ve been watching the same people from “The Real World” (hi CT) and “Road Rules” for twenty years.
That distraction only lasts for so long though, and then I am back at it. WHERE can I help? WHO can I help? – It is not boredom that drives me. It feels like torture. It feels like love that will erupt, and man it does. It erupts and then interrupts my days all the frickin’ time. But I’m glad for that. I’m so glad for that, because I found Mary. I followed the Bible’s instruction not to forget those who are in prison (Hebrews 13:3), signed up for the job of writing one, and I found Mary. I listened, and I found Mary.
Mary is a fifty-eight year old white woman who shot someone in the head. Two close range shots in the head of another. It gets worse from there, but in a nutshell she tried to hide her crime. When you break open the shell, or google, you discover that she was on the wrong medications when she killed this person – what drove her there? – and you find out that she turned herself in. When I signed up for this pen pal program, I never imagined that my incarcerated bud would be so old, or so desperate. I imagined a gang member who needed a sassy sister like myself to whip them into shape, not an aging woman who has spent twenty-one years of her life “behind razor wire” with no family to write or visit her. She was asked to list her belongings and she answered: several Bibles and one hygiene kit that was given to her by a charity at Christmas. She will be in prison the rest of her life.
I plan to ask Mary if I can share her letters with you. Since I don’t have her permission yet, I will share an excerpt from mine. Forgive how silly it sounds. The welcome packet also reminds you that your prisoner may not read as well as you do. I read my letter again and again to make sure she could understand what I was saying—which was nothing really. Just an excuse to connect.
I hope that even though you are not where you want to be, that you have found some little thing that brings you joy. Do you read books? Do you have anyone that you can talk to inside? Do you enjoy drawing or singing? What is your favorite movie? – I would like to know more about the person you were before your life changed. And I hope that if you are released you have a chance to be that person again.
What will she do if she is set free, if they reduce her life sentence and give her a chance to be our neighbor?
If you’re up for the challenge, write a prisoner. Visit www.someonecares.org — and for the love of Jesus, ignore how ugly their website is. I’m looking forward to emails from the ones who join.
(AND IF IT’S YOUR FIRST VISIT HERE, YOU’RE GONNA WISH FOR SAD DEPRESSING POSTS LIKE THIS WHEN I GET BACK TO WRITING ABOUT HAIR EXTENSIONS.)