EDITOR’S NOTE: The author of this piece, Antonio Howard, is currently incarcerated at the State Correctional Institution in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. He writes for The Beat Within, a division of Pacific News Service dedicated to providing incarcerated youth with consistent opportunities to share their ideas and life experiences in a safe space that encourages literacy, self-expression, critical thinking skills and healthy, supportive relationships with adults and their community. The Beat Within serves 5,000 incarcerated youth annually through its writing workshops, and publishes an 80-page bi-weekly magazine.
When you’re a man sentenced to life in prison, becoming relevant is your only way out. So, for years I’ve aspired to become relevant — relevant in the lives of others, and I have in the lives of many prisoners. However, the fact that I’ve been unable to extend that relevance beyond the prison environment has wreaked havoc on my soul.
I hadn’t fully acknowledged the effects until today. Today, I received the letter.
Though not unlike the others I’ve received throughout the years, it’s the first of its kind to pierce my armor, and after fifteen years of successfully parrying its blade, there’s something to be said about that. Who better to say it than me? And what better place to start than at the beginning?
I was fifteen years old when I was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to spend the rest of my life in prison. Make no mistake about it, prison is prison, but apart from my share of adjustment problems, I spent the first few years just passing time. During that time, my favorite pastime was letter-writing. As long as that was an option, despite whatever else was going on, prison was bearable. So, I wrote, and people responded, mainly girls my age, which at the time was enough.
But there came a time when I started reading more and, through books, learning about the world beyond what was familiar to me. Subsequently, my needs changed. Corresponding simply for the sake of having a pen pal had lost its mystique. I needed letters filled with substance rather than hugs and kisses. Unfortunately, none of the letters I received provided that. To make matters worse, my overzealous attempts to “reeducate” those who were willing to communicate with me, ended up pushing them away. So for several years, I received no mail at all.
Eventually, I made a decision to stop trying to reeducate others. Instead, I sought out the kind of people I had become: socially conscious and politically aware people well beyond my years and limited life experience. Soon, I was sending letters to places where the words “INMATE MAIL PA. DEPT. OF CORRECTIONS” rubber-stamped on the envelopes destroyed any chance I had of eliciting a response.
Still, I expected once they received my initial letter informing them of my existence, a deluge of letters would follow. I was wrong. No one responded.
Meanwhile, I continued to read. I read nearly everything I put my hands on. I even sought out literature that was unavailable through the prison library. I wrote to bookstores, book clubs, libraries and publishers. Some responded, others didn’t. Those who did, informed me I was no longer relevant.
Of course, they hadn’t used those words. They used these:
“We regret that we cannot accept your order because your mailing address has been identified as a correctional facility.” —Writers Digest Book Club, Central Islis, NY
Which brings me back to the letter. The one I mentioned earlier. The one whose blade pierced my armor and did what none before it had: wound me. It comes from one of the largest booksellers around, Barnes and Noble. It begins:
“We would like to inform you that all book orders to be sent to a Correctional Facility must be purchased at the store. Your family and friends are welcome to visit our store to purchase books and magazines and have them sent directly to you.”
They wouldn’t permit me, however, to place my order directly. So they were kind enough to return the check for the book I wanted, and along with the check came that letter: societies most recent assessment of my relevance.
That was the letter that wounded me — the blade I parried for 15 years, the stark reality that I’m no longer relevant.