On Friday July 12, 2013, my family’s world was shattered when my brother was arrested and taken to jail for a crime he did not commit. Like many other families, we were thrown into a very dark and unfamiliar world.
Our family was full of questions that urgently needed answers. What happens next? How can we talk to him? What is the cost of the phone calls? Can we see the PCA (probable cause affidavit)? When does he get in front of a judge? He’s in a different state, how do we find an attorney for him? How much will an attorney cost? Where is his car, and how do we get it moved to his home? How long will he be in there? Can we afford bail? How do we keep his bills paid? How does commissary work? Can we send him books?
Even the simplest of tasks seemed designed to be unnecessarily challenging. Each answer only led to another question, and we wasted an enormous amount of time, energy and money searching for real solutions – discovering the hard way that this is not a friendly system. It was a very unwelcome and expensive education – and the experience left us battered.
In the end my brother was swallowed up by a system we could not save him from. His is not one of the worst stories, relatively speaking … but it was certainly our worst story, as a family. We are taking our cue from him though – he has been extraordinarily strong – and together we will turn it into our best story.
But this is not just our story – there are many. It was my brother’s idea to start a non-profit that would help inmates who have little to no support from the outside. After seeing their stories, he saw first-hand how so many were systematically prevented from participating in their own defense.
We began delivering messages from inmates who couldn’t afford use the phone. Many of our calls would begin with my brother rattling off a phone number with a message to deliver. As we started making connections, we began writing letters to other inmates. As the inmates we knew in county were moved to state prisons, we began collecting names in those facilities, and writing to them. Then we started writing to inmates whose stories we had seen in the news. Nearly every letter we get from an inmate begins with an expression of gratefulness that someone cares for them.
In that way, our story led us to other stories. What we’ve learned is that as troubling as the statistics are, it’s easy to look away from numbers. But it’s not so easy to look away from a real person’s story.
My brother was fortunate in that he had support. But many inmates either have no family, are indigent, or their family simply does not have the needed resources to be advocates for them. There are many forgotten people in prison who desperately need to know someone cares. Likewise, people on the outside need to know that people on the inside are human.
We began writing to inmates in the Spring of 2015, and launched our website the following July. By December of 2015 we had heard from a thousand inmates. By the end of 2016, well over 5,000 were on our list.
With no budget, no salaries, no dedicated office space, and a handful of angel volunteers, we process up to 300+ letters every week from male and female prisoners of every age, color, and creed, from every state in the nation.
The audio below is part of a phone conversation with my brother, Rick, from prison, after he stayed up all night reading Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy.
Keep up with Rick on our Inmate Contributor page.