By Michael Kroll
Editor’s Note: While the media and legislature scrutinize the suicides, scandals and studies that continue to characterize California’s prison system, we rarely hear the voices of prisoners themselves.
The Beat Within, a writing program for incarcerated youth run by PNS, receives hundreds of letters each month from juvenile and adult prisoners. Their seldom-heard stories provide a glimpse into lives of loneliness, poverty and emotional abandonment.
Recently, The Beat received two letters on the same day, one from a teenager in the California Youth Authority’s oldest institution, the Preston Youth Correctional Facility (where two wards recently hanged themselves), and the other from a more seasoned 28-year-old prisoner incarcerated in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at California State Prison, Corcoran (where prison guards were caught on tape setting up gladiator fights between inmates confined to a tiny yard.)
Both letters deal with the want of a 37-cent postage stamp and what it means to wait for the letter that never arrives. Excerpts from these letters appear below.
June 4, 2004
Dear Beat Within,
“How’s it goin’? Me? I’m cool (at times). I been messin’ up lately, probably ‘cause Moms ain’t wrote since I been here. I try not to think about it and keep all that stuff off my mind, to stay relaxed, but damn! Show some support. You haven’t since I been here, Mom, you feel? I mean, from parent/teacher conferences to basketball games, nobody ever showed up.
Yeah, Man, I’ve been establishing goals to work forward to, and although at times I fall off, it gets easier each week I try. I been thinkin’, and this here is now time for me to make that decision whether I wanna change or die in the game of a negative life. It ain’t nothin’ in this life but two things: quick stress and quick death. All that stuff they be talkin’ ‘bout, that’s all fibs.
My bad I ain’t been writin’, but you get one free stamp every month. I been here one month and 20-odd days, so... I just seen Big Joe a few days ago, and he gave me a stamp and a few noodles... I would write in a few days, ‘cause that’s another month, but my lil’ sister’s birthday’s comin’ up. I’ll write in another 30 days if I can hustle up a stamp...”
King Yella, a 17-year-old inmate at Preston.
June 4, 2004
Dear Beat Within,
“...With dismay, I can see myself foolishly waiting for that letter from home which will never arrive. Searching the stack of mail in the guard’s hands with the lightning speed of a grocery store scanner and on each day that fails to bring the much needed letter I can see my heart foolishly being set on the next working day...
Out of the corner of my tired eyes, I can see the raging violence bubbling just beneath my calm surface, bubbling up even as I try to convince myself and others that I’ve rehabilitated myself, fixed myself despite the percolator of violence I’ve been trapped in for what seems like eternity. I can see myself nodding along with hopes and dreams floating like ghosts in the back of my mind: phantom house, car, job, family, real life.
Than I see the guard walk past my cell, skeleton keys clinking against his worn metal baton. In his hands a stack of letters, but not a one with my family name on it. Not a one that will bring me up to date, making the last eight years vanish.
In a flash boil, I can see how much I hate my family, detest them with a venom that seems unequal in all the world. Hate them for never taking five minutes to write on the back of a postcard. Hate them for never spending the 37 cents it would cost to get in contact with me. Hate them, ‘til I realize it’s hurt love I feel...”
Israel Perez, a 28-year-old inmate of Corcoran State Prison.