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Letters from Prison: Felons Write About the Struggle for Life and Sanity Behind Bars

by Shawn Thompson

Journalist-turned-academic Shawn Thompson’s correspondence with hard people serving hard time sets a steely tone from the first page. One of the author’s regular correspondents records the metronomic, dreary din of life behind bars: “More guys are shouting for food now. They are about an hour late … One guy is slamming his food slot. Clang. Clang. Clang.” Later in this same letter the inmate sums up the themes that hundreds of Thompson’s other correspondents will repeat through months and years of violence, dread, illness, and general craziness: “This solitude has brought out the best and worst in me … I’m hanging on to my sanity.”

From the first unyielding paragraph Thompson demonstrates that he has no ideological axes to grind, no causes to plead, and no intention of either condemning or excusing his pen pals. His goal in Letters from Prison is simply to capture “the Goyaesque dimensions of life in federal hell.” Thompson has a measured, empathetic feel for the material – some of it grave, some of it goofy, all of it compelling – and has organized at least 10 years’ worth of not-so-belles-lettres in topical chapters.

The first sections cover basic cell orientation: getting along; cleanliness; being “fish or fish food”; the significance of the phrase “do your own time.” Subsequent letters take on subjects central to jail life: tattoos, pets, relationships, sanity, and the pleasures of being able to glimpse trees and sky. One of the most striking features of the letters is how prominently the natural world figures in the cons’ values, and how eloquently they express these values, especially when it comes to writing about the view from a cell window.

There’s even a fascinating chapter on the importance of crickets, more popular even than mice in their ability to inspire late-night profundity and the nurturing instinct in the incarcerated soul: “I listen to the crickets. It really has a calming effect on me…. One time I had a cricket that lived in a vent that connected my cell and the one next door. It would get quiet during the day, but at night you would hear it singing all the time.”