Envelopes stamped ‘inmate mail’


His handwriting is impeccable. Written in black ink on an extra-long yellow legal page, he wrote in all capital letters, the right line of any letter that could possibly have a descender trailing down into the next line.

The letter came in an envelope stamped “Inmate Mail – PA Dept of Corrections.” Inside was the letter, and copies of a disciplinary board’s description of his alleged part in a prison crime.

But while his handwriting was impressive, his English? Not so much.

The letter was addressed to Heather Roth – Writer 4 Gazette. He claims his innocence, calls the situation a cover-up by the prison (that or ‘I’m trippen,’ he wrote).

“What your write’n does’nt make me look good & that’s the wrong pitchure cuz I’m innocent,” he told me, offering to get me any facts I want to balance out my coverage. (I’ve only written about his preliminary hearing. Those are necessarily one-sided affairs, a chance for the prosecution to show that they have a reasonable enough case to go to trial.)

But toward the end of the letter his tone changes, and I’m not sure whether he’s more concerned about my coverage or my personal opinion of him.

“I ain’t want you thinkin I’m some type of hitman or shotcaller, naw that ain’t I baby,” he writes, and promises me that he’ll talk to me next time, that he’s looking forward to seeing me at the next court date.

And I’m struck that he’s writing as if we met at a bar or a party, and he was too shy to walk across the room to chat.

Not as though he’s only seen me from across a court room, while his hands and feet were shackled and deputies sat near him at all times, and my pen scratched loud as I tried to keep up with testimony.

That odd, foolish confidence struck me then, too.

He grinned at his mother, seated beside me. He made goofy faces at his grandmother, who was fighting tears. He answered rhetorical questions his defense attorney asked the prosecutor’s witness.

And apparently, he noticed me. He wants me to smile and say something next time.

I think his defense attorney would have a heart attack if he read the letter.

And I probably will cover the next hearings, will probably talk to him since it will make the story better, if attorneys and deputies don’t get in the way.

But I will also wear a tent, because he expressed his attraction in no uncertain terms, and that makes me nervous.

And I’ll see his mother again, and feel sorry again.

And I don’t question some of the accusations he made, they’re plausible, really. But he calls his accusers unreliable and I’m left wondering how he thinks he measures by the same standard? Why should I take his word and not theirs?

We’ve passed the letter around, trying to decipher dialect in written form. It’s easier to understand if you read it aloud.

And again I’m struck by the care he put into it.

And I wonder how many more envelopes stamped “inmate mail” I’ll receive over the course my career?

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