Upon visiting inmates in Texas, Colorado and Oregon we were surprised and saddened to discover that in nearly all cases we were the first visitor they’d received during their entire incarceration, which for some meant over a decade without a single visitor. For whatever reason that might be, we were overwhelmed by the loneliness they expressed to us and by their gratitude for finally having someone meet them within their prison walls. It didn’t matter to them that we were strangers, but that we gave them our time and our ears.
Our pen-pal initiative is our opportunity to continue sharing the healing of compassionate human contact; it is the space in which inmates, although imprisoned, are not left without care. For the IPBYS Prison Program this care and concern is expressed through engaging inmates in a growing understanding of their lives, karma, spiritual journey and relationship to their higher self. The pen-pal initiative allows for inmates to continue their studies of Gaudiya Vaisnava philosophy through discussion with other students and teachers.
Whether you’ve been practicing bhakti yoga for a lifetime or whether this is all very new but you’re interested in studying the philosophy and mantra meditation, if the sound of being one of our pen-pals appeals to you then we invite you to contact us. Each month we receive many new pen-pal requests from inmates and so we’re always looking for more volunteers!
For pen-pal enquiries please write to: Vimala dasi: firstname.lastname@example.org
In Their Words: Mail Call, by Inmate X28
Jay Shri Radhe! Welcome to my cell block. You can call me X28. You see, when you are here on the inside, your number is as important as your name. Well, I am glad you are here. Thanks for stopping by to see me. Your timing is perfect. You got here at one of the most important times of the day for us inmates. At least for some of us anyway.
You look at a little bit nervous. Relax. Most of these guys are harmless. Just don’t try to turn the channel on the T.V.
Okay now, follow me. I want to take you out into the day room. It is almost time for the mail call. Before the officer starts calling out the names of the guys who got mail today, I’d like you to meet a few of the guys that I live with.
You see the guy standing right up’ front, there, right by the officer, the one with the ring of pure white hair? Yeah, that’s him, inmate Money. Every day at mail call, you will find him posted up right there. And he always gets there early because he knows that he gets mail almost every single day. Let’s move on. They turned down the sound of the T.V. so it is almost time. We will get back to inmate Money in a few minutes.
There are enough bunks in this dorm for about 90 guys, and it usually stays pretty close to full, but if you look around you’ll only find about 40 or 50 guys who have migrated to the day room for mail call. And why is that, you might ask. You see, the other 40 or 50 guys never get any mail. Let us get back to them in a minute as well.
Now, the guy over there by the window, the smiling guy with the cane, that’s inmate Family. He always shows up in plenty of time too. It’s more likely than not that he will be getting some mail as well.
Most of all these other guys, well, they sort of fall everywhere in between inmate Money and the guys who never show up. Sometimes, they get mail and sometimes they don’t, every mail call is at least a chance to have a few minutes of hope.
See the short guy by the water fountain, yeah him. That’s inmate Newspaper. You will hear his name called out and he will pick up his copy of his home town news.
Shhh! Listen up..It’s time for mail call.
Jones! Here Sir. – Jiva! Here Sir. – Smith! Here Sir. Ajamila!.. Ajamila!… Sir, he went to sick call this morning and never came back. I think they may have put him in the hospital. -Henderick Hendricks 29! – That’s me Sir. – How the hell do you pronounce your name? – Headricks Sir. – Headricks? Well, you need to tell your people to learn how to write. Hall! – Here Sir. – Maya! Maya! – He’s in the shower Sir. -That figures. He seems like he’s always lost. Money! – Here Sir – Money! – Here Sir – X28 – Here Sir – Family! – Here Sir – Newspaper – Here Sir – Bible – Here Sir – Winkin! – Here Sir – Blinkin! – Here Sir -Nye! – Hey Nye, you better get down here. Somebody loves you! – Family! – Here Sir – Name, Name, Name, etc. Okay guys, that it. Hey Kamsa, nobody loves you! -Oh Shut up. I didn’t hear your name either Ravana.
So that is mail call. It only lasts a few minutes but it can sure make a big difference in an inmate’s day. See Winkin and Blinkin over there? They’re cousins who got special permission to be housed together. See how happy they are. They always read each other’s letters.
Everyone who got mail today is happy, although some more than others, as well see in a minute. Now the guys who did not get mail, well, some of them are okay, maybe they’ll just be content thinking they will get some tomorrow or the next day. But the guys who never ever come to the day room, most of them have already taught themselves to be so cold to the world that they actually believe that they don’t care about the fact that they never get any mail. But I will tell you what, that cold shell is pretty thin on a lot of these guys. If the truth were known, it would be that they would love to be in that day room with a chance to say “Here Sir”, when they would hear their name called out. Oh, and by the way, they don’t just stay in their rooms because of the fact that no mail is coming. There is another reason as well. It’s that one little biting comment that old Ravana threw out, “Nobody loves you”. You may think that because we are all grown men, and “hardened criminals” at that, we’d be immune to that type of comment, especially when you know someone is going to use it most every day, but we’re not.
As a matter of fact, I want to you to look out into the day room right now. See those three guys over there starting their card game back up, and two in the front row of the T.V. benches? Why do you think they have got such prime seats to go to? Didn’t you notice those card hands were dealt and half-played? All five of those guys got up and left the day room just before mail call. They are all, “never get a letter” guys, and they have heard, “Nobody loves you” one too many times, so they flee mail call like sins flee the heart when you clap during kirtana. The “Nobody loves you” pill is a pretty tough one to swallow, and guys like Kamsa and Ravana have no qualms about using it to hit a guy where it hurts it most, right in the heart.
I know you probably didn’t notice this. I missed it myself for a long time, and I think one of the reasons Ravana pitched the poison pill to Kamsa was because there is a moment or two, right after the officer says, “Okay guys, that’s it!”, that you can almost hear a feather fall. It is a very somber moment. Most guys whose names don’t get called are just staring at the ground because they don’t want to make eye contact with anyone.
Hey, take a look over there for me. See inmate Money. You heard his name a couple of times, but, if you notice, there is no real smile on his face. Do you want to know why? Magazines. That is what he gets, magazines, day after day after day. He once told me that he’s ordered enough magazines to practically ensure getting one every day. But I have never seen him get a letter, ever.
Now Family, he gets letters. Letters from his wife, letters from his brother, letters from his children, and last week he was so proud to show off a letter that he got from his first grandson. It was the first letter that little Family, the third, had even written. And you should see him at Christmas time! Of course, as devotees, we are lucky enough to understand that even these types of letters, which are based on false identification related to the body, cannot lead to real happiness. When Family leaves his body, all those “family members” will disappear like a dream upon awakening.
What do you think happened to the “never a letter” guys? The “never hear their name called” guys? Well, each of him has his own story, though, over the years, you’d be surprised how many of the stories seem the same. – Some are simple and just plain sad. “All I had was my wife. But I have been locked up for 17 years and she passed on back in 2000″ – Some are horrible. ” I was high on PCP and I shot my own son. No one has ever come to visit me, written to me, or sent me any money since the day I was arrested”. – But most of them are more benign, they go something like this. “When I first came to prison, my friends would write, or come out to visit me sometimes, but, well, I guess they have got new friends by now. And my wife, it was just too hard on her to stay married to me. I mean we couldn’t ever be together, I couldn’t help her with the bills, so after I’d been down a few years, she divorced me. My kids, they were all pretty sore at me for having been locked up. I mean, losing their dad and all. I did hear from another inmate, whose daughter knows my son, that my son’s got kids of his own now, so, well, I guess he’s probably busy with them.”
Those are the kind of things most guys have to think about every day at mail call. It’s no wonder that they hide in their rooms. Oh, but wait, I forgot to tell you about what Bible and I got in the mail. I used to be Bible’s roommate, so I know a little bit about his story. He’s only got one brother left alive, and he doesn’t write, except maybe sends a Christmas card. But once a month, Bible gets his scripture correspondence course, and I will tell you what, he loves getting that course. He breaks out his scripture and he studies that course until he’s filled in every answer. One day he showed me a folder he had that was full of certificates from the different courses he has completed over the years. Bible’s kind of quiet, he doesn’t really have many friends, but he has got his courses, his Sunday church service and an evangelism class on Thursday afternoons, and, well, he seems to be pretty peaceful, I might even say a pretty happy guy. Especially in comparison to most of the guys I know who center their thoughts around regrets, now get this, not regrets about what they did to put them in prison, but regrets about all the sense gratification they are missing out on.
I’m really sorry, that up till now, your visit has been a mostly depressing one. I mean Bible’s story, and Family’s letters being the only real exceptions. But let’s leave all that behind now. Let me tell you about what I got in the mail.
It was a letter from my spiritual pen pal, Keshava Dasa. He is a disciple of Shrila Gurudeva that I met through the prison program. The letters he sends me are like pieces of immeasurable wealth in an envelope. He sends me nice, thoughtful, mercy filled personal letters of encouragement that have led to our developing of a very nice friendship. He also sends me lectures from Shrila Gurudeva that he prints from the internet. Some of these pertain to specific questions that I have asked and some are just ones he chooses, like he sent me lectures about the month of Purushottama when it arrived, so that I could honor it. He’s also there to answer my questions, no matter how deep or how trivial they may be. I might ask him a thoughtful question like, “What is meant by ‘offering the fruits of one’s acts to Krishna’, when the Bhagavad Gita is discussing Nishkaama-Karma-Yoga? Or it may be something as simple as “What does didi mean when it is used in place of dasi?”. No matter what I ask, he answers, even if he has to ask someone else or look up the answer himself, and when that happens, he also learns something by being my devotional pen pal. He also sent me a copy of Jaiva Dharma and he told me how Srila Gurudeva said we should read it 108 times. Well, I have got 106 and a half to go. I can tell by every single thing he has ever done for me that he’s a friend in the highest sense of the word. He is clearly dedicated to helping me understand the highest tattvas.
In today’s mail, I got a nice letter where he sent me some information about the meaning of “Shri” and “Shrila”. He also copied an excellent Sanskrit pronunciation guide from the back of Shrila Gurudeva’s “Shri Gaudiya Giti Guccha” song book. I know this took some extra effort on his part, but that is the kind of great devotee he is. You see, I had found some various pronunciations in some of the books I had and since Jaiva Dharma had no pronunciation guide, I asked him about a couple of specific pronunciations. Instead of just answering my question, he found this guide, copied it and sent it to me, so now I have the full guide. Yeah Keshava Dasa! He also knows that one of my favorite topics is transcendental lobha’ (greed), so he sent me a recent posting from Bhagavat Maharaj on that very subject. Of course, I’m a little prejudicial in saying this, but I really don’t think there’s any doubt as to who was the most blessed at the mail call today.
Even amidst the crowded conditions and the hubbub, the loud T.V. and the even louder screaming sports fan, prison can be a lonely, quiet place. An inmate has lot of time to think. Many come to realize that the way they were living their life is just not going to work anymore. This is especially true for those, who have come to prison for the first time. Many were living lives either filled with or entirely centered around drugs, money, violence, and sexual excesses, and even though they may miss this to some degree, many also come to realize that these were among the very things that lead them to prison. They begin to understand that the time has come where they must make changes in their lives. Some become aware of the fact that if they don’t make changes while they are in prison, then there is every likelihood that they will go back to the same destructive lifestyle as soon as they are released. For these inmates, it often means facing the fact that they have come to a point in their lives where they have only two choices, change or else…
I thank you for staying with me, your time is appreciated.