by Christine R.
When it comes to writing, we can refer to our Big Book where the text reflects “putting pencil to paper.” Phrases like this are here and in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions.
As we write, we start a genuine flow from the heart, through the arm and out the hand. One way of putting pen to paper is writing letters to incarcerated alcoholics.
Once a letter is received, the prisoner decides whether or not to continue. After their release, some stay in touch. From some, upon release, all you hear are crickets. Some don’t write at all. If nothing happens, new names are forwarded from the Central Office Corrections Department. They receive 60-80 requests a week. Rather like working the Steps—the cycle starts all over again.
When the letters arrive, guards review them with a fine-tooth comb, right down to the type of ink. Conversation sticks to topics of recovery, alcoholism and our problems related to it. Period. Writers are not sponsors. Later we might choose to be—once the prisoner is released and there is continued interest. As we come to know one another, we discuss getting closer via Zoom, Skype or Facebook.
For something to read along with the letter, include articles from The Point. If you aren’t called on during a meeting, here’s your chance to give voice to a “captive” audience. A bright spot of my day is sharing my history with alcohol along with a treasured journey from victim to victory. Victory is my sponsor’s favorite word. Paying it forward as we do in recovery, the prisoner reads victory in my letters.
I don’t recall when writing to prisoners began, but I do know part of what keeps me going is the knowledge of what it’s like in prison, teaching speech at the Marin County Jail. While there, I encountered a few women whom I know from meetings. One woman I did not recognize, she was so badly beaten up and beaten down. Grey-faced, with life’s spark nearly snuffed out, she turned to me and said, “Yeah, Christine. It’s me.” She read in my eyes I did not recognize her—a woman who for years was trying to get sober. Writing letters can be lifelines.
To help keep you sober, here’s an outsider’s view of jail. Before entering is a massive personal search, of person and purse, followed by a labyrinth of winding in and out of the cell blocks, elevators and locked metal doors to find the women’s cell block.
Small, cold, bare cells with little heat. One wall is a plexiglass floor-to-ceiling window. Nothing is personal. Noisy, with bells, buzzers, and at times, violent screaming as women go berserk. They take off their clothes, thrust themselves against the plexiglass and howl. Schizophrenia seems to be part of the problem. Kind of like these brilliant women went over the edge with their drinking and drug use, never to return the same. In a tiny yard women take turns walking around. And around. And around.
The reality of prison is horrible. This is only a hint of what it’s like inside.
More often than not, prisoners tell me they needed jail to find freedom from alcohol. Don’t let that be your bottom. Let your energy flow and start writing. Write now.