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Phillip Tutor: A letter to a prisoner

Calhoun County Jail inmates

inmates in the men's section of the Calhoun County Jail use telephones in February 2019.

I’ve never written a letter to someone in prison, let alone to someone I know who is in prison. I’ve received letters from inmates, strangers all, people convinced they were unjustly convicted, people who claimed mistreatment and abuse and malnourishment, people who purported wild conspiracy theories, people who thought a newspaper guy could somehow save them. If only they knew. A few probably wrote the truth.

This is different.

I’ve known people in prison, or known of them. The older brother of my best friend years ago. A guy I ran around with for a while in high school. 

But this is different. 

When you write to someone who’s been in prison for nearly a year and has two-and-a-half years to go, what do you say? Seriously. Tell them it’s going to be OK? That it’s not as bad as it seems? To keep their spirits up? To be safe and you’ll see them when they get out? 

Nothing sounds right. Everything seems trite, stupid, unfeeling, condescending, awful.

Plus, Christmas, you know. Talk about brutal timing.

So here’s what I wrote.

I’m not here to judge.

I hope your life brightens.

Write me back if you want.

And I love you.

That’s it, those and a few other handwritten words on a single notepad sheet, slid in a white envelope addressed to an inmate (complete with the inmate number and pod ID) at a maximum-security prison in another state. 

I feel guilty.

Guilty that I didn’t say more. 

Guilty that I didn’t know what to say.

Guilty that the words came out like wisdom teeth extracted with a blunt knife, slow and messy. How could I not know what to say to a close friend, a childhood friend? That we hadn’t kept up as much as we used to, years and miles between us, shouldn’t matter. The words should have been the easy part, putting my arm around someone I know so well.

None of this, by the way, equates to liberal acceptance of criminal behavior or blanket criticism of the American justice system that imprisons more people, per capita, than any other nation. That’s not this. This is about flesh and blood — people convicted, people incarcerated, people writing letters, people missing others and hoping, more than anything, that they’re OK.

I must be an outlier — an American unaccustomed to writing letters to friends or family in prison. Because, the numbers.

“The American criminal justice system,” writes the nonpartisan, nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative, “holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,719 state prisons, 109 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,163 local jails, and 80 Indian Country jails as well as in military prisons, immigration detention facilities, civil commitment centers, state psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in the U.S. territories.”

If America’s prison and jail populations were counted as a city, the U.S. Census Bureau says it would rank size-wise among the top 10.

More than 46,000 people are imprisoned in Alabama.

Some of them are terrible people, the worst among us, those who have taken life, abused children, raped, their punishments severe, felons removed from society. Among them are others imprisoned for lesser crimes, like my friend. Their commonality — other than their imprisonment — is their existence as people, some rehabilitatable, others not. That can’t be removed, either.

Matthew Wade, the Calhoun County sheriff, is keen on saying that people don’t care about jails and prisons — about paying for their upkeep — until one of their family members is locked up. Lord knows he’s right about that.

The same, though, is true about the people in those jails and prisons. Often they’re nameless, faceless people, some arrested and awaiting trial, some convicted felons, others on death row’s interminable slog, nothing but numbers in national tallies.

But if you know someone behind bars, someone removed from society because of their crimes, someone you care for and hope to see again one day, you search for the right words to say, even if they’re slow to come.

Phillip Tutor — — is a Star columnist. Follow him at