Open Letter to a Friend in Jail (Again)

Subject: Open Letter to a Friend in Jail (Again)
From: Janelle
Date: 11 Mar 2015

Hey Shawn,

I hope you’re at peace, as much at peace as you can be under the circumstances. I hope you’re eating well and taking care of yourself physically. I hope you have the basic necessities — not including the one you’re more than likely substituting with a bottle of lotion and a smutty magazine — and a few faithful people you can count on. And I hope you’re finding a way to cope with being boxed in once again by the four walls of a dank and cramped little cell with a dude you may or may not like, but who is no less forcibly the first person you see when you wake up and the last person you see before you go to bed.

I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out you’d been locked up again. Usually, it’s that automated voice announcing the collect call I’m about to receive from a correctional facility that lets me the deal, even before you get a chance to click over with a “What’s up?” full of tentativeness and shame. Even if you know I’m going to go in with my standard hard silence or long lecture, you call me because you want me to know you’re OK. The lifestyle of a hustler is a minefield of potential pitfalls, and you’ve dodged the worst of them more than a few times, thank God.

Honestly, I was so self-absorbed during a particularly busy stretch earlier this year that I didn’t notice I hadn’t heard from you. I eventually tried to call one of your many numbers (dudes who hustle always have, like, five phones but no minutes), but after doing the dance of multiple voicemail messages, my mission faded until I called again for your birthday a month later. I still couldn’t get in touch with you. Finally, intuition and a little inquisitiveness told me to search the inmate locator on the department of corrections website.

There you were. Living, breathing, but locked up. Again.

For the better part of a decade, I’ve called you my friend, from the time you tried to bag me at the intersection of Prince and Vine, and I, in my infinite airheadedness, didn’t figure out until about a week later that you hadn’t been hanging out on that corner just to shoot the breeze and some craps with the boys. Still, we became good friends. It’s complicated because you are, in essence, two people: Shawn the drug dealer, the hardcore Jersey dude who does only God knows what to get by on the streets, and Shawn my homeboy, the one who lays up in the house and watches the National Geographic channel, who loves spending time with his sons and nieces and nephews because he revels in how unspoiled and innocent kids are, who is the most gentle-spirited and kindhearted man I’ve ever known.

Every drug dealer has a story and most of them are product-of-their-environment heartbreakers that make me and my goody two-shoes upbringing seem like something from a sitcom. I was raised by a single mother and doted on constantly by grandparents who kicked up sand if they missed even one weekend in their normal visitation schedule. Both your parents were addicts and, in their constant foraging for a high, one contracted HIV. Then the other. So when they both finally lost their battles with drugs and AIDS, you were volleyed between family members who really couldn’t afford another mouth to feed, but took you in out of a sense of duty, though not necessarily love. For a while, your aunt sent you to a mental institution for no other reason than she couldn’t really be bothered with you while she was trying to live her own life. You were 7. I can’t even imagine how all of those factors, all of these personal tragedies, affected you. Maybe you could’ve become a psychologist or a dog trainer or a gourmet chef if the stars would’ve aligned in your favor. Instead, you became a drug dealer.

We’re all the time being hit with statistics about black men as part of the prison industrial complex. We lace our theories and concepts with all kinds of fancy terms to explain why it happened and what we can do to keep it from happening some more, but we end up dehumanizing the people at the core by debating the proper methodologies and pedagogies and all kinds of other -ologies to sew up the bleeding wound. It’s one thing to see the numbers laid out on paper; it’s quite another to see a friend’s name among the thousands of brothers being held captive at the same time. A simple search turns up a list replete with telling names like Tyshaun and Melvin and Dontay, all verifying just how many of our men are being caught up. And there you are, just one more in the number.

The last time you came home, we had a long talk. We have a lot of those, but this one in particular sticks out in my mind because you mentioned you’d gone to church while you were “away,” the first time you’d ever expressed any interest in anything religious outside of asking me to pray for you. (Your aunt, the one who sent you to the psych ward when you were just a kid, was a devout, church-every-Sunday Christian, if that puts two and two together.) You were trying to turn your life around, you said, and I believed you. I want you to know I still believe you. I believe in you, too.

I know the desire is there to change. I’ve seen you struggle with the behavior and mindset that keep you bound. You know it’s a cycle. You’ve said it yourself. But how do go from making — and spending — thousands of dollars literally overnight to being expected to pick up a 9-to-5 and assimilating into the ways of the unimprisoned population? Every time I talked to you, you seemed less and less confident in your ability to make it, to stay on the straight and narrow. You asked me, “How can a nigga in his 30s stop doing the only thing he’s been good at his whole life?”

I don’t know, Love. I really don’t. But I know I want you to be free. Not just physically, to go to the movies or the mall or the bar whenever you feel like it, but free in your mind. And eventually, hopefully, the rest of you will follow.

All love, always,