Curious about writing to an inmate? Read on for advice and resources to getting started.
The fascination with reading true crime is an interesting experience. It requires total immersion in a world filled with the darkest and most awful facets of human nature. Writing true crime is somewhat worse, for it requires one to not only examine, but to interact. At the very least, it necessitates a dip of the toe into the dark pool of humanity.
Recently (or not so recently) I wrote a letter. While that in itself may not be particularly exciting, the nature of the letter was new for me. Why? Because I wrote to a convicted murderer, a man who’d killed two young boys. This is what a dip into the pool of darkness looks like sometimes. But for me, I feared this would be a stench I couldn’t wash away.
It’s been 2 1/2 years since I first wrote and rewrote that letter. I pored over its carefully crafted sentences again and again. I obsessed over every word, thinking my handwriting appeared hasty instead of nervous. My hands trembled from nervousness. My writing came out in tall, angled letters pinched too close—definitely hasty. Somewhat undecipherable too.
That’s what I worried about for weeks, not what I should have thought about instead. What I needed was to understood my reasons for contacting a murderer in the first place. And more specifically, why this murderer? I digested the court records and transcripts with ease. Yet, I obsessed about how my handwriting might look in a letter to a murderer.
When I told my husband I wanted to write to a murderer and former death row inmate, I expected resistance. But he asked one thing of me: not to use our home address. Something I hadn’t even thought about. Let me be clear though, telling my husband of my plans was me being considerate, not me asking for permission. Or at least I thought that’s all it was.
After more than two years, I realize it was something else too. I was gauging my husband’s reaction for the kind of responses I’d likely get from others. I needed my husband to resist some, enough for me argue my case. His only resistance, though, was to using our home address.
He wasn’t concerned about the inmate himself. My husband’s caution had to do with sending our address into a prison populated with over 6,000 inmates. 90% of them are serving time for violent crimes. Within the walls of prison life, a letter can fall into the wrong hands at any time. I thought it unlikely. My husband’s solution was to surprise me and rent a P.O. Box, which he did. All I needed to do was bring in my I.D. and sign some form while there.
But I never took care of those two minor tasks. Not even after three months of weekly email reminders from the Postal Service. By month four, the emails warned about the box expiring. By month five, emails from the Postal Service stopped altogether. That’s when I decided to put the letter away for a while and move on to other projects.
About a year later, I was doing it again: complaining to my husband about not being able to mail the letter. Again, he went out and rented a P.O. Box. Even with keys in hand this time, the letter still remained unsent. Out loud, I blamed it on the new pregnancy and being too tired and busy. I whined about loading up two babies to go mail a letter. I grumbled about having to go to the post office every week to check for a reply that might never come. And what if the address I found online, the one for my killer, wasn’t even correct?
The letter was the one thing I needed to finish an essay I’d been writing for two years. Yet, the more I thought about it, the more I came to see the letter for something else. For what it could mean: that what I was seeking might already be in front of me, in the form of a thing never sent. How could I know for sure, though, without at least trying to mail it?
To understand my inability to do something I wanted to do and my fear of the outcome if I did it, I needed to do that thing. It took me 2 1/2 years to realize it. You see, I needed to mail the letter.
Correction: I need to mail the letter. Today.
So What’s the Takeaway Here?
If you want to write true crime, you will face things that are uncomfortable or scary. This includes grisly crime scene photos, detailed coroner’s reports, and letters to murderers. Either way, keep the following goal in mind: to elevate the story above the sensational. Focus on aspects other than gory details. It will help you to understand the crime itself and how it speaks for humanity. This is the epitome of literary true crime.
Want to get a feel for what you might expect from an inmate? Inmate Blogger is a great blog written by actual inmates, and can help you get an idea of what their daily lives are like and what they like to share.
So that’s what I’m doing. I’m sending my letter, and I even plan on sharing my letter here in a upcoming blog post. If I hear back from my prisoner, I will also share that too (at least parts of it that aren’t too personal). I hope my experience in this unexplored pool of darkness will help and inspire you.
Read on for a few tips to help you compose your first letter to a prisoner.
Want to write to a prisoner?
Think you’re ready to write to a prisoner, someone convicted of a rape, a murder, or worse? Are you unsure? Ask yourself the real reason you want to write to this person. If it’s only to ask about the crime itself in graphic detail, you aren’t ready.
Here are three questions to ask yourself before writing your letter to an inmate.
1.) What is the purpose of writing to this person other than asking about the crime itself?
- You need to be willing to look past the crime and into the person convicted of committing it. Otherwise, you’ll risk losing out on the question of “why?” and what that reveals about humankind. Finding out about a person leads to larger discourses and elevates your writing. Go from newspaper sensationalism to literature, which leads to point #2.
2.) Can you challenge your preconceived notions about the convict? What about your personal feelings on the crime itself?
- A person is more than what they’ve done, and this includes crimes they may have committed. The world is not black and white, and no person is 100% evil. Even the worst of killers weren’t pure evil. Humans are far more complicated than that. Hemingway once wrote “a writer should write people, not characters. Characters are a caricature.” While this was in reference to fiction, it applies to nonfiction, too.
If you’re unsure what to say in your first letter, then I have the perfect resource. Leslie Jill Patterson, a writer, editor, and Texas Tech professor, has a handout I can’t recommend enough. It’s one of her many resources included in presentations to defense attorneys/capital defenders during training workshops. The document is currently available here (for a short time) as a resource from the 2018 Deep South Capital Defense Conference. Jill Patterson was one of my professors in grad school and was also on my dissertation committee, and I learned so much from her about writing literary and creative nonfiction. Trust me, her stuff is golden.
- Write to discover the human experience hidden at the core of the crime, including the perpetrator’s life experiences (I want to note here that this applies to victims as well, but that’s a topic for a later post.). When not committing murders, Dennis Rader was a scout leader, family man, and church deacon. Equal meaning exists in the mundane and “everyday” too, not just in the darker activities. Discover both.
3.) Are you prepared to be honest and establish a relationship with the convict?
- Remember, writing this letter isn’t about getting gory details. Your aim should be to humanize your subject, as difficult as that sounds. Remember, no one is pure evil. Introducing yourself and be honest about your aims. You cannot expect someone to be honest and forthright with you if you aren’t willing to do the same.
- You don’t have to share every little detail of your life, but do open up to them. Once you establish a connection, allow it to be an organic one. Let them bring up subjects on their own terms, when they’re ready. This will help you form a fuller view of their character. It may also shed some light on any pre-prison experiences as well as later incarceration. This is where the real story is also found.
Sister Helen Prejean also has an excellent guide on her website for writing to an inmate. She also has an upload that details an experience writing to a death row inmate in Georgia, but that has good advice for general use.
These are but a few things I’ve learned thus far. The most important part is to get out there and do it! Remember the purpose of literary true crime. Start writing, and don’t be afraid to put the letter in the mail.
In an upcoming post, I’ll share specific tips and advice for writing your letters, such as dos and don’ts and how to find the rules for specific prisons (yes, prisons dictate what you can and cannot write or send in your letters!).
What are your thoughts? Anything else you would add to my tips for writing a first letter to a prisoner?