The Beat Within: A Letter to No One


The following is by a young inmate in Coalinga, Calif., who writes about about emotional survival beind bars. The letter was originally published by The Beat Within, a juvenile justice system writing workshop, which has generously allowed The Crime Report to share.

Dear You,

I haven't decided whom I'll send this letter to, or even if I'll send it out at all but in the event I do decide to mail this, I pray that these words find you in the best of health and spirits.

It's almost midnight. I'm tired, but can't sleep. That's been happening a lot lately, but I find that writing helps. It's probably because there's no one you can really talk to in here, no one you can trust to not take advantage of a perceived weakness at least. It's hard to be on point all the time, wear your mask and check your armor for cracks. I've been doing this level four, max security shhh for over five years now, but haven't been home, haven't been able to hold my daughter, haven't been able to just be, for about eight years now.

People here laugh, smile, and clown around. Sometimes, I think how the lawmakers and juries would absolutely flip the hell out if they only knew how we face our trials and convictions, with a joke at the ready and no sign at all that we're even concerned about spending the rest of lives on a shhh hole yard with sadistic cops. How could they, or you, or anyone really understand though? We're whistling past the graveyard. The only way to mentally survive is to deny the pain, ignore the loss of freedom and hope one day you can make it home and pretend it was this time in the pen that wasn't real.

I may never come home. I watch “Barbeque USA” and “Ask This Old House” on PBS, and say to myself, “I'm going to do some landscaping in my mom's backyard. Maybe build a barbeque pit and try out that recipe for country style pork ribs I saw the other day”. In reality, most of the people I love and care about will probably watch me grow old and die in here, or pass away themselves before I ever make it back home to them.

I don't think about that though. I sit here in the dark, drinking tea, writing this letter to no one, and using my little book light 'cause my celly is passed out already. All I can think about is what we'll have for breakfast tomorrow, and whether or not we'll get a little outside yard time.

All the while, something inside me silently decays, like dry rot in a mansion's walls, it goes unnoticed. Every now and then I allow myself to feel it. Like tonight, I scream inside my head that I'm better than this! I'm intelligent, well read, articulate and creative; my parents didn't divorce, they loved me and I did well in school. I do not belong here. I know it, and it is like salt in an already excruciating wound. I feel that I've wasted so much, and yet, still have the potential to do so much more. That potential is killing my soul. I wish it would go away and let me be.

Tomorrow, I will joke around with other ex-gang bangers, murderers and dope dealers. I will pretend that nothing is wrong, and enjoy myself. Enjoy prison. I will be callous, unforgiving, and will survive. Tonight won't be forgotten, but will become a distant echo, like a barely repressed memory.

Am I depressed? Do depressed people intellectualize their suffering? Are they even aware that something is wrong, or do they just trudge through their bleakness, oblivious to their own misery? I don't know which I am, or if I'm even “depressed” at all. I do know that sometimes I smell something, see something, or hear a sound, a song that pulls at my heart and resonates deep within.

Right now, I'm listening to “My Immortal” by Evanescance and “Hey You” by Pink Floyd on loop on my Discman, not exactly the most cheerful music. I admit and I feel the loss of my family, the mother of my child, the freedom of drinking a beer on the beach and under the stars; there's an emptiness where I once had the memory of sun on my face, affection, the closeness of another human being, and I desperately want to cry. I don't though. I don't know if I can cry for those things anymore, but as I sit and listen to the music, I do think of them and mourn their loss.

What would my homeboys and other convicts say if I told them this? Most would probably call me a bitch, and either avoid further contact with me, or try and victimize what they see as “soft”. Would some pull me aside and admit to feeling the same way sometimes? Would any take comfort in the knowledge that they are not the only ones who hurt on occasion?

I'm a romantic, so I'd like to think so, but I won't tell any of them. Nor tolerate any disrespect or attempts at aggressiveness. I will face challenges head on and show no weakness, but for now, with you, it helps to know I can pull down my defenses for a moment and be vulnerable. Just being able to say, “I hurt,” to anyone without fear of reprisal helps.

I don't want your pity, however. I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me. I didn't do what I'm accused of, but have earned these sentences with past actions for those cases I beat, or was never charged with, I justify my life sentence with stoic resolution. No, all I'd like is for some normal person, with normal outside problems, and a normal outside life, to understand that I am not a complete monster. I just happen to have a better-developed emotional/psychological defense mechanism.

Whoever you are, I wish you well. I hope you know that life gets hard, but is never impossible. No matter what is thrown at you, it could always be worse. Always, for that reason alone, you should thank God. Thank Him for the sunshine that warms you and the fresh breeze that revives you. Be thankful for your loved ones company, and the freedom to follow your dreams. Enjoy your ability to drive away from your problems, and your option to return to what's important to you.

Life is good. I live in a bathroom with another man, rarely see my loved ones, I'm surrounded by killers and thieves, and can still say that in spite of my bouts of depression, life is good. So, I hope you don't take too much for granted out there. If this letter can teach you anything at all, it's that there's too much suffering in the world to have you add to it because of a fight with a loved one, or a hard day at work.

I'm tired now. I want to put my pen down, go to bed, sleep, and wake to find that this was all a dream I can't quite remember. The words will stay on paper, but the black feeling will have faded like shadows in the sun.

I hope you will have taken what I've said and found something positive in it all, a message to cherish what little you have perhaps? Whatever it is, I pray it serves you well. I rarely take my own advice though, so I don't expect you to either. Take care, God bless, and may the angels watch over you and your loved ones.

Photo by Tony Hall via Flickr.

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