In prison, he did not know what time it was, because the lights were always on. It could be any season, any year. Every hour looked the same from his cell.
No one waited for him, no friend, no relatives. His child didn’t want to know him or be like him. His parents were dead. So were most other people he had gone to high school with. Dead or gone on the other side of the wall. He’s been in prison now for 30 years of his life. The crime that was half a lifetime a way was with him every day. Stupid. If he’d controlled his impulse. . . but he hadn’t. This was his 30th years inside prison.
Three years ago, the last flicker of hope had gutted out. He’d placed an ad for a pen pal, just a voice on the other side of the wall. But no one had ever answered. Who would write to a prisoner? Who would care? People are put in prison to be punished, so who would think to extend a hand in friendship?
Sometime he had fantasies that there was no one alive on the outside world. Beyond the sweating gray block wall there was nothing. In his abandoned world, his life had shrunk to the routines of the prison. The one hour a day he was allowed to be outside, a roof over his head, so he couldn’t see sky. Standing in the steaming hot laundry room, loading and unloading uniforms. Eating meals scooped into the hollows of plastic trays.
There were days he went without talking. No need. He’d feel his teeth with his tongue to make sure they were still there, in case someone said something to him.
But no one did. The guards yelled, the bells shrilled, the door clanged. All on schedule. He had done something horrible 30 years ago. He knew his sentence would end when he died. He didn’t think he was innocent. He was just alone. Abandoned. No lawyers to talk about appeal. No family to tell him he was missed. He deserved it. Except he would like to see a sky again. Know what it felt like to walk on grass. See a moon rise. To eat a meal someone who knew what he liked to eat had cooked for him.
A warden appeared at his door. “You got a letter.” He reached for the envelope. Who would write him? Who knew he was here? It was no one he knew. Someone who had seen the ad, which had been reprinted in a magazine. Someone who had written a stranger, knowing he was in prison. Just to offer some human communication. Someone who asked him about himself. Not what he had done wrong, but who he was, what he thought.
In that one instant, he had a life again. The outside world was not abandoned. Cars began to rush down streets in his silent imagination. People began to talk. Refrigerators opened and closed, factories roared to life.
And his heart beat in his chest, not as a countdown to his death, but knowing he could write back and know someone knew where he was. He was not abandoned.
It was a letter from a stranger who knew the loneliness of prison and wanted to make one spark of sudden light into the dark. Her description flooded light and color over him as he read. After three years, someone had seen the ad. He looked at the date on the letter. It was winter, December. He counted the days it would have taken for the letter to pass the censors. It was Christmas. And he was no longer alone.
—Quinn McDonald wrote this story after a friend began a correspondence with a prisoner who will spend the rest of his life abandoned in Pelican Bay, a maximum security prison. She began to think about the real meaning of loneliness, and admired her friend for the example of true compassion.