My name is Roy Cohen. I’m a fitness trainer and blogger living in Fallbrook, California. My blog, which I understand you cannot access, is a collection of essays that I write each week. Most of them have exercise and fitness at their core, but more often deviate, if not outrun the ideals of exercise in favor of contemplating some of life’s more complicated issues including family, community, religions, and societal miscarriages.
I have come to know of you and your situation through your mother. She is both a social media friend, and someone I have consulted with regarding her fitness. Rather than write an essay for my blog this week, I chose to write my first letter to you, and publish it on my blog. I did this with your mother’s permission. If you choose to write back, I will be an honest pen pal.
Social media is a fickle platform. That is, I have come to know and trust your mother through this medium, but she and I have never met. I do though, consider her a true friend. Despite that I have come to know a great deal about her, there is much more I don’t know. That’s just how social media works – you get to know people, but some things fall through the cracks.
Because I know your mother, I have come to know some things about you, though there is also much about you that I don’t know. For example, I have no idea why you are in prison or for how long. I only know that you are in prison.
It’s not an exaggeration to tell you that my only true fear in life is the idea that someday I might hear a cell door lock behind me. Like most people, all I really know of the prison system is what I see in movies, on reality TV, and on the nightly news. Despite that none of these paint a complete picture of what goes on in prison, I think between them they offer some idea of what life must be like.
I write this having no knowledge of your patterns of behavior within the institutions where you have spent time. If you choose to write back, perhaps you can answer some of the questions I may raise in this letter. For example, I wonder if you have opportunities to create. If so, what might you like to create…? Art…? Poetry…? Music…? To me, fulfilling our creative desires is one of the most important aspects of being human.
Perhaps you spend time reading and studying topics that interest you. If so, what might those topics be…? I wonder if you ever have the chance to work at a job within the system and feel productive. Or, do you simply sit, stand, and entertain your own thoughts all day – alone. And from that I wonder, what might those thoughts consist of… And for any of this, I am curious how much time might you be allotted…?
Like most people, I think of prison as being a violent place, so if I’m being honest, I’m also curious if you have ever been the victim of or even the perpetrator of any acts of violence. I suppose what I’m most curious about is how you would plan to conduct your life if you are released. That is, what will you have learned from this process…? How will what you have learned influence who you continue to become…?
Our prison system, in my opinion, is one of America’s most profound tragedies. I understand the necessity for incarceration as a deterrent, as a form of penalty, and as an instrument of public safety. Beyond understanding the need for it, I support it. However, it’s clear that the system has deviated far beyond the intentions of social necessity. From the outside looking in, it seems society has become quick to remove the human element from those inside.
I always attempt to use that term, human, when I think of or speak of people in prison, rather than using terms like convict, inmate, or prisoner. We have dehumanized people in the system, in my opinion, to a shameful level. I try hard to remember that behind every pair of eyes, even for the worst offenders, is a heart, a soul, fears, doubts, desires, and all those emotions which make us human.
My beliefs on who should get imprisoned, and how long they stay are on the more liberal side. It makes little sense to me to break up families, deplete the labor force, and take people out of communities in favor of social and political revenge when there seem to be so many sensible alternatives. I am hopeful that our society will continue to explore the many options which will reduce prison populations, better serve society, and better prepare the humans within them to grow rather than contract.
Anyway, Gabe, I just want to reach out and say hello. To let you know I support your growth as a human being. I encourage you to create when you are able. Study when there is opportunity. Reflect often, and do so honestly. Lastly, I’ll offer a piece of advice, given to me by a mentor long ago, which has always served me well:
Make a list of the 10 highest priorities in life. Review that list regularly. Change it as your life changes. Be honest – especially with your first priority and with your last priorities, because they will almost always be wrong.
I hope you write back. Your mother assures me you will. I’m at 211 E. College Ave. Fallbrook, CA 92028.
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