Last February I got a typewritten letter from inmate No. 1965977 (not her real number) in a state prison. Authors often get such letters, usually with detailed and hard-to-follow accounts of how the writer of the letter was unjustly accused, convicted, and/or treated. This one was different. It was clearly written (more so than much of my students’ work) and mentioned nothing of jurisprudence. Rather, the writer said she was interested in learning about journalism; she had no access to the Internet or materials of any kind, and was wondering if I could help. I sent her an encouraging note along with a copy of a journalism textbook I had lying around the office, Telling the Story. It was the least I could do.
Then I forgot all about 1965977.
I was reminded of her last week when I got another typewritten letter from her. Once again, the writing was better than that of many of my students, the only flaws being some missing apostrophes and the occasional off or misspelled word (no spell check on typewriters). She wrote that shortly after sending me the letter,
we had a major lockdown and shakedown of the prison and I lost many of my copies of letters that I have written to others, including the one I originally wrote to you.
I was not aware that you had even sent me a letter or book until October 06, 2015, when I received a non-delivery of mail notice from the prison mail room. The book was deemed contraband because it purportedly had a wire binding.
The edition of Telling the Story I had sent indeed had a metal spiral binding. She went on:
Whats interesting but not surprising is the length of time they held back the non-delivery of mail notice.
Prison officials dont much care for inmates who can write credibly and cohesively about prison conditions. I suspect that that is the real reason the book was denied. I believe that I wasn’t informed of the books existence until now so that I would be unable to challenge its denial. We have 30 days to do that from the date the item is received, and if we have not directed mail room staff as to what we wish done with a non-allowed item, it is destroyed by mail room staff.
I have been interested in taking some journalism classes, however, I am finding it extremely difficult finding anything available via correspondences or without rigid admissions requirements and costly prerequsites.
Would you be willing to resend the book ‘Telling the Story’ in photocopies? I am willing to pay for it. And the photocopies. I have money and I dont glom on to people or feel entitled to help from others at their expense.
It’s often the case that if you haven’t answered a (non-urgent) morning email by the middle of the afternoon, you get an impatient email asking what the holdup is. It had been nearly a year since inmate 1965977 had written to me, a period in which, presumably, she’d been unable to act on her urge to learn something about journalism. I found a copy of another text — one with a soft cover — and put in first-class mail for her, along with an encouraging note.
It was the least I could do.
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