I get calls from inmates all over the country, all day long. Many of them are collect calls, and as much as I wish I could, I can’t accept them – we’ve no budget for it. Each state’s prison phone system has its particular recording, typically announcing whether it is pre-paid or collect, sometimes including the inmate’s spoken name, as is the case with Sean in Illinois. Several times a month, I answer the phone to hear the following:
“You are receiving a collect call from: <in Sean’s voice> Sean,” followed by instructions to set up a pre-paid phone account to receive collect calls. I knew in my heart he kept calling just so someone would hear his name. Eventually, Sean wrote to me, and finally I knew his last name and location. I looked him up and, as Illinois is one of the states that provides pictures, saw a young face staring back. He had been barely of legal age at the time of his crime — now 20 years into a long sentence. What happened, Sean? How did you end up there?
I wrote him back. He responded, “I got mad respect for you, Melissa,” and that he would continue with the unanswerable calls, so that I would know he is alive. Each time, I listen to his now-familiar voice uttering a one-syllable word, his name, and pour every ounce of love and peace I can muster through the line hoping he feels it. I hear you, Sean.
Illinois state inmates occasionally receive a free 20-second call, and we use those rare 20 second opportunities to quickly say hello. He was adopted by one of our volunteers a few months ago, and used his next 20 second call to tell me he had heard from his adopter. Now someone else knows his name, too.
Lesson: There is always a soul behind the call.
A few weeks ago I answered a pre-paid call from April, an inmate in North Carolina.
The conversation began as most do, an inmate who — after seeing our ad in one of several prisoner resource lists — inquires about our services and how to participate. I explain that we are currently taking a hiatus from new inmate requests, while we focus on catching up with a huge backlog, and to wait a few months before checking in again.
April’s voice is young, but thoughtful and determined, and exudes warmth. She shares a little about her story with me. Now 42, she has been in prison for 26 years – more than half her life. Quickly doing the math in my head, I ask if she was a juvenile charged as an adult. With a barely audible sigh in her voice, she confirms my suspicion. April was born to teenage parents who were in and out of prison themselves, and unable to properly care for her. Her grandparents adopted her in their sixties, when she was still a baby.
Fifteen years old and pregnant, under the influence of a man twice her age, April made a terrible decision that resulted in the death of her grandparents. They had given her an ultimatum: abort the child, or her boyfriend would face statutory rape charges. “I always grew up feeling unwanted because I knew my mother had given me up for adoption. I didn’t want that for any child. It was never a matter of us wanting to kill them, it was just like ‘gosh, what can we do to scare them, to just get them off our back,'” recalled Barber. April received two consecutive life sentences. An article b
She gave birth to her son, Colt, in prison. He is now 26, and attends Appalachian State University.
“April,” I stop her, “forget what I said about waiting. You have a story that needs to be told.”
I ask about her eligibility for resentencing, based on Miller vs. Alabama (which applies retroactively). In the decision, the United States Supreme Court ruled that imposing mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole on juveniles violates the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The law invites the defendant to submit mitigating circumstances to the court related to the defendant’s age, immaturity, exposure to familial or peer pressure, and other potential mitigators. An attorney is working on her case, but as those who follow such things know, it’s a very slow process.
“I believe in giving back,” April tells me. The irony in her statement struck me. “If my story helps others from going down the same dark path that I walked, then my journey has not been in vain.”
April has completed every educational opportunity available. She has a handful of certificates and diplomas — is a certified personal trainer, nutritional specialist, and licensed cosmetologist. She is 13 credits shy of a BA in interdisciplinary studies, and a semester away from an AA in business administration. Due to budget cuts, she is unable to finish either degree.
As an alternative, she hopes to find a sponsor for an accredited Paralegal Certificate Program offered as a correspondence course. The total cost is $826 – or about $30 a month.
I may never know Sean’s story — but I do know April’s.
Please consider sponsoring April for one or more months of education. Click the donate button in the sidebar. Share this post with your social networks. I’d love to give her some good news the next time she calls.
- Vacca, J. (2004). Educated Prisoners Are Less Likely to Return to Prison. Journal of Correctional Education, 55(4), 297-305. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23292095
- Chappell, C. (2004). Post-Secondary Correctional Education and Recidivism: A Meta-Analysis of Research Conducted 1990-1999. Journal of Correctional Education, 55(2), 148-169. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23292162
- (2006) Crime and rehabilitation: Correctional education as an agent of change—A research note, Justice Quarterly, 14:1, 167-180,