Snail Mail Part II: A Mellow or a Violent Guy?

Letters from prison come with extensive directives about what may be mailed to inmates Photo: Oakland Voices/Debora Gordon December 2012
Letters from prison come with extensive directives about what can be mailed to inmates.
Photo: Debora Gordon

By Debora Gordon

It is a strange way to get acquainted or re-acquainted with someone, through postal mail filtered by the prison mail system. With every page is stamped “State Prison” on both sides of the page, and knowing that another set of eyes – perhaps with interest, perhaps with total dispassion – is reading words intended for someone else.

As Lam was one of many students with whom I had a mutually respectful but not particularly close relationship, it borders a bit on the surreal to establish this new journalist/subject relationship this way. I also sense the therapeutic role that an exchange of ideas can bring.

Certainly, Lam knows about worlds of which I have only an inkling, even after more than two decades working with students, many of whom were in gangs or aspired to be. In my letters to Lam, I ask him how young people choose lives of crime, and what happens to them as they do. Also – what makes anyone pick up a gun, point it at another human and decide to pull the trigger?

On November 18th, Lam wrote (grammar and spelling all true to his letters):

Spending my time in county jail gave me an enormous amount of time to reflect on what I am doing and who I really was. inside  I’ve learn more about myself now that I did in the world. Part of that was thanks to my celly whom wise words got me moving. It’s wild how I got here because of how I have been projected by other as a calm and mellow guy. Is that really me or I am a violent guy?

Well, being locked (up) is not a good thing but for some like me, we need a scary situation to set us straight. If only there were a machine who can tell if a person has truly learn and have change for the better. I would be release real soon.  Being in here has stop a lot of my plans and goals but I look at is this is time to build a better me for the future.  It is what it is. I wish things didn’t turn out the way it did or for Alicia (the victim) to be hurt, but rationality proves that everything moves on.  Without these problems, how will I learn?  Wise people do not dread on problems but welcome it because its problems that create our courage and wisdom.  So me being locked up have open my mind and style of thinking to a different degree. 

Their is always negative and positive side to everything. Prison get me to change to self educate myself. I’ve seen a lot of people in here that are well educated, one of my math teacher is an inmate.  So being in here isn’t to bad, as long as you have a strong mind and challenging your mind to find a certain program to go by on a daily basis. But I understand everyone has their own way of program to which ever course best fit for that individual. I sometime try to get others to try my way but I try not to say much because testosterone is very high in here and many would take things into a different perspective of why I speak of knowledge and education. Some feel that I’am just trying to impress them and put them down. So I mostly keep to myself and show my knowledge in school.

I used to be Lam’s teacher, and I am still a writer. So I have to resist the urge to make corrections when I transcribe his letters.  But I write it just as he sent it, in order to remain true to who Lam is, his understandings of the world and the word.

 Next time: Snail Mail Part III: Forgiveness: Is it for the Forgiver or the Forgiven? (the victim or the offender)

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”

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