Back in January of this year, I was on campus as a freshman for my first J-Term. While on campus, I received an email about an informational meeting regarding the Augustana Prisoner Pen Pal Program, and I knew immediately that it was going to be something I was interested in. A couple of my friends and I decided to attend the meeting and right after we knew we wanted to participate in this program. After hearing the professor in charge speak about her own experience communicating with an inmate, and then hearing personally from that former inmate how it changed his life, I was determined to help make a difference in the same way. About a month after being in contact with the program director, I received my inmate match, and after making sure it was somebody I was comfortable communicating with, I began writing my first letter.
Although in my eyes I was simply writing to get to know a new friend (as a typical pen pal letter would be) this program stressed the importance of keeping personal information private, such as my real name, and keeping the conversation light by refraining from talking about any sensitive topics. I started out with a brief and vague introduction about myself and asked him some questions about his life as well. A few weeks later, I received over four pages of writing from my penpal, which consisted of him expressing his excitement to be communicating with me and giving a brief overview of his life thus far. I was absolutely overjoyed with the effort that he demonstrated in wanting to form a friendship with me.
Of course, no one could have seen coronavirus coming, but this pandemic has made me that much more grateful that I am in correspondence with him. His location is no longer allowing prisoners to see any visitors, nor is he allowed outside with other inmates to engage with. Therefore, for 24 hours a day, he spends his time alone in his cell in complete isolation. At a time like this, he tells me how much he looks forward to receiving a letter from me so that he feels a little less lonely. Although the frequency of our letters is slower than we would both like (due to the pandemic), it is still such a delight for either of us to receive anything at all.
Since beginning our correspondence 9 months ago, he has truly become such a joy in my life. I have helped him with his hard times and in return, he thanks me and truly lets me know how much he appreciates our friendship. I knew beforehand that my pen pal was serving a life sentence, but I don’t think I truly grasped this concept until he told me how long and lonely his days have been. And for a life as lonely as that, it is the least I can do to be a friend to someone who needs it. Little does he know that he is changing my life as well.