Mail call is one of the most anxious and potentially rewarding times of the day. Usually, officers pass out the mail around 3:20 pm, and when you hear the familiar sound of cell doors opening and closing, you can’t help but hope that just maybe they’ll stop at your door too. But you always have to be prepared that they won’t.
A few years back, I was sleeping with one eye closed, steeling myself for the usual drive-by, when my name was called and a letter slid under the door. I hopped down and eagerly picked it up. I was a little disappointed when I saw that it was from the Anne Frank Foundation—probably junk mail.
But it was mail so I opened it anyway.
A letter inside informed me that the Anne’s foundation was interested in compiling a book made up of journal entries written by incarcerated people. They wanted to educate the public about the men and women who were locked behind the walls of our nation’s prisons, and they were willing to send me a copy of Anne Frank ‘s diary, writing supplies, and a return envelope. They wanted to know if l was interested. Hmm
I had never read Anne ‘s diary before, nor had I ever tried to keep one of my own. But I liked the fact that they wanted to educate the public about incarcerated people, and Patrick Berry had exposed me to the power of writing for a change during a U of I course he had taught through EJP. So I decided to give it a try.
I received Anne’s diary a few weeks later. I started reading it immediately, just to see what writing in a journal was like, and to be honest, at first I didn’t ‘t much like Anne Frank. I thought that she was selfish, a little superficial and overly dramatic, and she treated her mother horribly. But as I got deeper in, I saw that she was also compassionate, confused, loving, afraid, brave, thoughtful, and most of all, honest. She was tragically and wonderfully human.
I must’ve read her diary in two days. I remember feeling so angry at times that a little girl had to grow up in such a terrible world: bombs shaking the earth and turning cities into dust and fire; living with the constant fear of being discovered and separated from her family; and knowing that people in the world felt like she was less than human and were exterminating her people like vermin. When I got to the end I was horrified. I didn’t ‘t know the end of the story, and while I read I had really thought that she was going to make it through to the end of the war. Instead, I was left with a terrible image of the SS crashing through the door, screams of terror, and a little girl desperately trying to hid e her journal.
I was pissed. But I was inspired too. And so I set out to write my own journal, and I poured what I had into it. I wrote about things that I didn’t even know I carried around with me anymore. Sometimes I wrote by the narrow beam of light that filters through the grate of my door, sometimes I wrote with the full weight of a prison day hanging over my shoulders. I wrote about the people in my life, about love lost and found, about my failures and successes, my fears, and my hope for a better tomorrow. At times I was selfish, superficial, confused, loving, remorseful, compassionate, and always honest.
After ninety days, I wished the world peace and Jove and said good-bye and good luck. I put everything into a manila envelope and sent it out into the world, for better or worse. I kept no copies.
After about a month and a half! still hadn’t received notice that the mail room had sent my journal out. So I started asking around. I found out that Internal Affairs had my journal and that it was being investigated.
I could only wait. I received a summons a few weeks later. When I walked into IA’s Office, I saw my journal open on a desk, with post-its and words circled in red ink. A man walked in and sat down. He told me that the warden said to put me in segregation, but that he wanted to talk to me first. He picked up my journal and shook his head. Apparently, some of my entries contained the names of people in EJP, and that what I wrote was borderline fraternization.
I frantically thought back to what I had written. There was no doubt that people in EJP had touched my life in profound ways, and at the time, our educational community was going through some difficult times. People were leaving. People were getting horribly sick. And I was affected , and I wrote about that.
The man pointed to places in my journal where it clearly seemed that I didn ‘t understand that my teachers were not my friends. He didn’t think that I fully understood the gravity of the situation.
I sat there, horrified. I looked at my writing, tagged like evidence, and I felt like I was in the cartoon part of Pink Floyd’s The Wall when the judge finds the defendant guilty of having feelings of an almost human nature. And I knew that in this place this would not do.
My only hope was that he had read the whole thing. I asked him. But he hadn’t. He was only reading it for a particular purpose, and skimmed the rest. I actually thought it would be educational for him to read it, that might’ve understood inmates at a deeper level than just criminals that we really are fully human—but this wasn’t the time.
My options were limited. He didn’t want to put me in seg. I think he felt sorry for me. He told me that I was naYve to think that these people cared for me like I cared for them. I hadn’t professed my love for anyone, only admiration and respect, but at the same time, writing about someone who works here by name was unacceptable. He couldn ‘t let me keep the journ al, and he cou ldn’t let me send it home. He was going to read the rest of it and if he found anything more then he wouldn’t have a choice but to put me in seg. I could give him permis sion to destroy it, or, I could file a grievance and try to send it out, but I would face further review and disciplinary action.
My journal was shredded days later. The pieces of me that were shredded with it I still carry around, but what I wrote is gone forever. That experience taught me that writing in prison can be transformative , it can be liberating, and it can be one of the most meaningful things a person in here can do. But it also taught me that while I’m in prison I’m not free to write down anything I want, and a piece of paper is not a blank canvass where I can explore my whole humanity. I must keep some things inside.
I tried writing another journal for the foundation, and this time I left out everything that I thought might get me in trouble. But it wasn’t the same. When something is in your heart and you can’t say it, it’s a horrible feeling. It reminded me that I am just an inmate, and that I’m not supposed to care. Maybe I’m just too tragically human.
The journal never reached its destination. It made it out of the institution , but got lost in the mail.
Go figure. I haven ‘t kept a journal since. Sometimes I think I should ‘ve never read that letter that slid under my door, but I’m eternally grateful that I did.