It’s not unusual for judges to receive letters from prison. There are the complaints about violence, lockdowns, harsh conditions. There are the protestations of innocence. There are intricate and confusing procedural motions drafted by jailhouse lawyers with the time to pursue the minutest points imaginable. Scarier subjects can also be covered in such letters.
These letters are often handwritten. Computers and printers are scarce in custodial situations, and, for some, typing is harder than writing. There is often a studied and artificial neatness to the handwriting, a neatness that does not occur as often with those of us whose egos have not been destroyed, and who still write with the boldness of their dreams. In prison, one is learning to write, and live, within lines drawn by others.
So I was not surprised to receive a handwritten letter from prison, though it was somewhat surprising that the prison was located in Arizona. It did not seem unusual for the letter to be labeled “personal and confidential.” I figured this prisoner was hoping that by labeling it in this way there would be a greater chance to get the letter by the clerk. In this case, he was right.
But this letter was different. After addressing me formally by title and last name, the letter then re-launched by addressing me by my first name. “John, I’m writing you to thank you.” Apparently the Guideposts’ article about my book had reached into an Arizona prison. Having found it, one of the prisoners was writing to tell me he had found my story uplifting, and encouraging.
The letter writer told me that he was about three years older than me, “though definitely with a lot less gray hair.” That Guideposts’ picture does make my hair look frighteningly white. Of course, that is the way it looks.
Although he doubtlessly knew I would be reading his letter in the ease of a judge’s chambers, the prisoner’s first concern appeared to be to comfort and assure me. “I do believe that the voice you heard was of the Holy Spirit doing what He does best and that is teaching, guiding, and reminding us what we should do in truth and faith.”
My correspondent seemed especially concerned about the part of the Guideposts’ article revealing that even now, with all the good fortune that has befallen me, I often do not wake up happy. He assured me that “If Jesus was in your heart, you would.”
The writer was touched by the story he read in Guideposts about my daughter and me living in an apartment of which I was ashamed. He sought to assure me of her love. He knew from his own experience living in similar or worse places, that children just want to be with their Dad, “playing ball, watching TV, or going to the park.”
His story of his sons’ love had a tragic ending. Like so many of those who write to tell me they are encouraged by my book, this writer had endured a sorrow far greater than the petty difficulties of which I complained in my book.
“I was in the County jail on February 10, 2002 when my son was murdered outside of his mother’s home in East L. A. He had just checked in at Camp Pendleton after serving a tour of duty as a Marine in Afghanistan. He went to visit his mother at the house he grew up in. After returning from a party for his brother, he was approached outside his mother’s home and was shot and killed. He fought so that those who shot him had the freedom to do so. Apparently they still have their freedom. I don’t know who they are but I have forgiven them. My son did not die for his country; he died because of his country.”
A few months later, a stepson was also gunned down. Even in this sorrow, the writer sought mercy rather than retribution: “I don’t know if anyone has answered for the murder of my boys, but whoever has the duty to judge, I pray that judge is merciful.”
Reading the letter, I learned that the faith that so sustained this man in his cell had not been easily won, and was discovered only through incarceration.
“Lord knows I have failed… I basically took everything in my life for granted… When I was put in jail, I didn’t want to deal with anyone. I gradually started attending church services at the county jail. I’m now playing the keyboard, guitar and singing in the services. I find most days I wake up singing a song to the Lord. I don’t want to be here, but wherever I am, I do thank my Lord for giving life to me. He’s given peace and joy along with his love.”
Although it did not come early, his letter made clear that faith had not come to him too late. Unlike many who are in his position, this writer did not deny his responsibility for his own actions. And although the letter gave me plenty of advice, he was not writing out of bitterness, or to complain. “I live a content life. I regret a lot of my past, but I look forward to the future.”
In closing, my Arizona correspondent again sought to encourage me. “You have a good life,” he assured me, and went on to note that if you have “a good outlook on life and love it, then it will love you back and make you look good.”
On the day I opened this letter, I received some urgent advice from an Arizona prison cell. My friend told me to wake up happy. I’ve been trying to do so ever since. I hardly have an excuse to do otherwise.