Jail mail focus is on the future, not the past

September 17, 2006|By DAN RODRICKS

Dear guys in prison:

Thanks for all the letters, and thanks for all the letters, and thanks for even more letters. I am reading them all. Honest. It takes a while, but I read them. (OK, some I skim a little, but I try not to miss the highlights.)

A few observations:

You all get passing grades for penmanship. Obviously you have had time to sharpen this skill, and it shows. No letter has been chucked because its handwriting gave me a headache. So far, so good.

Secondly, I'd like to commend most of you on your writing - that is, your ability to communicate exactly what you wish you hadn't done in the past and what you say you want to do in the future.

I am impressed. The vast majority of you - and we are talking about maybe 500 inmates of Maryland's and America's penal institutions who have written to me in the last 18 months - show a skill for the complete sentence. You write with more clarity, and better grammar, than many of the people on the outside with access to e-mail.

But I have one quibble about letters from prison: Some of them lack brevity.

(Note to the guys in Hagerstown: I'm onto you, OK? I wasn't born yesterday. Obviously, somebody out there is passing around Roget's Thesaurus. I am getting way too many adjectives and adverbs from Roxbury Road. If this doesn't stop, I'm going to ask the warden to seize synonyms as contraband. So cut it out.)

I'm not saying this is a bad thing in all cases.

I don't want those of you who have written 20-page letters (both sides of 10 legal-size pages, with teeny-tiny handwriting) to be self-conscious and think Mr. Dan doesn't read long letters just because they are long. (OK, some I skim a little, but I try not to miss the highlights.) It's just that, in my business, we've been trained to write with a certain ... "economy of language" is what my old friend, the journalist and author Neil Albert Grauer calls it. (We call him by his initials - Nag!)

I know you have a lot of time on your hands, guys.

But that's no excuse for a long letter that goes off on tangents, with side trips to tangents, never arriving at a point.

Having a lot of time to compose a letter does not give a writer the license to bore the reader or to bury us in words. (OK, maybe Solzhenitsyn can get away with it.)

Some of your letters have been so long they continued on the outside of the envelopes.

Chill on that.

Now, my major point of praise: Thank you for the focus on the future, not the past.

Over the years, I have received a few thousands letters from inmates who either had a complaint about prison life or who claimed to have been wrongly convicted. (Two of them were.)

The letters of the last 18 months have not been like that.

The letters I've been getting almost all ask for help in finding employment and housing after prison, and the inmates express earnestness, with a dash of fear.

Some of you are years away from release. Some of you are just a few months away from boarding the bus in Hagerstown. (Guys, if you are within two months of release, please leave a forwarding address because - no joke - by the time I get around to answering your letter, you might have moved back to your mother's house.)

I'm writing this today because I want Marylanders to know about the inmate mail on my desk.

Every day a letter or two - or 10 - arrives from inmates in a state or federal prison or pre-release unit. They ask for help in finding a job and describe a correctional system that has only limited opportunity for corrections - that is, comprehensive preparation of the inmate for release back to free society to reduce reversion to the bad behavior that leads to more crime against people and property and, eventually, more incarceration.

The next governor really has to do something about this. It's not a popular theme for politicians - I think they misread the public's attitude about it - but given the state of things inside and outside the walls, it is essential that the system do a better job in getting these guys ready for their return. And the private sector needs to step up and give a guy a second chance. (Gov. Robert Ehrlich and his corrections secretary have spoken out about this a great deal, but the administration's reform initiatives have received almost no support from the state legislature. The next governor really needs to take this issue to the business community.)

So look, guys in prison, keep writing, especially if you have a shot at getting out soon.

At The Sun, we've assembled an information packet that can be mailed to you. It provides information about ex-offender services and lists several companies that hire people with nonviolent records.

Those of you who have written before and who have already received the information can write again. Write all you like. I read all your letters. (OK, some I skim a little, but I try not to miss the highlights.)


Ex-offenders seeking help in finding employment or drug addicts seeking help in arranging treatment should call 410-332-6166.

Hear Dan Rodricks Tuesdays and Thursdays from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. on WBAL Radio's The Buzz, with Chip Franklin, and read his blog at www.baltimoresun. com/rodricks

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