In summing up a slim but stirring 129-page book, Carleton Professor Deborah Appleman wrote, “For them, writing is the key to healing, to redemption, to the survival of the soul.”
In the recently released “From the Inside Out: Letters to Yong Men and other Writing,” 16 Stillwater prison inmates offer insights, advice and encouragement.
Fourteen of them have life sentences.
But their lives are not over. Appleman told me recently, “I didn’t meet one person who tried to convince me that they are innocent. If they cannot help themselves, they want to help someone else. They want to save at least one young man or woman from a path that many thought glamorous but which they now know is devastating.”
In a letter to himself, at age 17 (25 years ago), inmate Warren Bronson writes, “My hope is that by the simple act of reading this, your future will not become my past. Believe me, my past isn’t one to look forward to.”
Terrelle Shaw advises, “It is unfortunate that the wrong people are the most willing to take an interest in you. However, these are the people you must avoid like the plague; these are the very people that will play a major role in the destruction of your futures.”
He continues: “I didn’t rise above being a product when I was given the opportunity, instead I wasted my physical and mental talents to running with gangs and benefitting from drug profits because I could not see beyond immediate sustainability over long-term sustainability, a mistake that I desperately regret as I peer out into the world from my cell bars.”
Joseph Davis writes, “Every situation is a lesson waiting to be learned and sometimes the lessons must be repeated. Hopefully you will not have to repeat mine.”
The book has three sections. In the first, inmates write to themselves, a son, nephew or another person. The second section includes poetry and prose. The third features pictures some of them painted – including two unforgettable ones with young people holding an inmate’s picture by C. Fausto Cabrera.
Thanks to John King, Warden at Minnesota Correctional Facility, Stillwater. who made this project possible. Thanks to Carleton, which gave Appleman a year off to work on this. Most importantly, thanks to the inmates. They have chosen sharing over shame, encouragement over embitterment, insight over insult and compassion over complaint.
As E.M. Batchelor explains “Becoming a real boy, or better yet, a real man is a journey but one that you can easily conquer with just the right attention to detail and some long-life batteries made of electric compassion and strong currents of persistence.”
Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and school administrator, directs the Center for School Change at Macalester College. He welcomes reactions, email@example.com