My Prison Pen Pal
By Jesse Archer
Randy knew some men are solely attracted to children, but insisted he’s not one of them. He believed judges (and the public) don’t see individual cases; for them, all sex offenders are bogeymen. Gays, especially, won’t go near the topic for fear of association. Demonized as chicken hawk child predators for so long, we run a million miles from anything that gives that old smear an ounce of credence. Randy said he wasn’t born with enough middle fingers.
At least he was popular at the post. Randy maintained around 20 pen pals. A few wrote wanting to “cho out” about prepubescent longings, and a few demanded his soul-crushing guilt, but most were just friendly strangers. Randy said he felt fortunate. He kept most of the letters he received and sent them home at regular intervals. After he was released, he planned to take all those letters, ignite them in a big bonfire, and move on.
His oldest correspondent, Bob (a.k.a. Boopsy), was an 88-year-old living in the California desert. Boopsy was not only a loyal correspondent, he deposited money in his prison account so Randy could buy essentials at the commissary (95 cents for a honey pepper turkey stick, $12.75 to splurge on a stylish Casio digital watch) or contraband cigarettes ($6 each).
In prison, Randy worked as a custodian, earning $40 a month until he was laid off due to budget cuts. I tried sending stamps so he wouldn’t pay postage, but stamps are verboten, a jailhouse currency used in lieu of cash. So I started sticking stamps on the back of my envelopes he could steam off and reuse. I considered wiring money but wasn’t sure if that was his racket, and I didn’t want to feel played. But Randy wrote back always without expectation, and I wondered what currency all those pen pals offered him in lieu of cash. A purpose, a distraction, a window, a mirror?
Although he would soon be sprung, the conditions of his release (no drinking, no spontaneous travel, no porn, no contact with friends from prison) took him to a very dark place. “I perceive being freeish,” he wrote. “And subject to continual scrutiny, distrust, judgment, and stigmatization.” Add to that being an ex-con starting over flat broke and unskilled.
Around the time I quit my dead-end job, Randy finally got a release date confirmed. One day soon, after some 4,300 days jailed, a free-ish life would begin at a halfway house in Austin. After six months “reintegrating” there, Randy planned to go live with his father in Montana. He was imagining future careers (custom epitaphs?), his first meal (a Denver omelet with mushrooms, extra cheese, and a pound of bacon), and little luxuries like owning the marvelous all-in-one Norelco beard-brow-nose-ear hair trimmer. He was also nervous.
The halfway house promised a battery of barbaric tests (such as the penile plethysmograph, electrodes attached to his dick to measure arousal), and he had a more general fear that after so long away, he would be a lost relic from a forgotten age. “Getting out of here will be akin to a second birth,” he wrote. “An after-birth birth... a strangely profound yet grotesque analogy.”
Then, that day in April, he said farewell forever to Lorne, to Dewars, to all those inside he had come to love, his family for the previous 12 years. After an especially teary, blubbery parting from Chas, Randy hopped a Greyhound bus to Austin. Not having traveled for so long, his first taste of the outside was severe motion sickness exacerbated by nerves and sensory overload.
After spending the majority of his adult life behind bars, Randy found his rebirth unsettling. People were like zombies now, walking around lost in their smart phones. At a Walmart, he found himself standing frozen before a wall of technology, completely overwhelmed and longing for his old Discman. And they say there is no such thing as time travel. He picked up a pack-a-day smoking habit to help cope. “Don’t tell my mom — she’ll freak!” he wrote. That must have been a joke.
He said the halfway house was dangerous. More than he ever had in lockup, Randy sweated the sex offender label. He kept the nature of his conviction on the DL and even invented an entrapment alibi in case of violent confrontation. Although he had never felt so menaced, there were bright spots. For the first time in over a decade he was sleeping on a mattress with an actual box spring, and Boopsy had sent him the Norelco trimmer and his very own seven-inch portable RCA TV.
Suddenly, Randy stopped writing. I was disappointed that I didn’t even get a Dear John letter when our relationship ended. To be fair, he was just two months shy of being back home in Montana, where I picture all of my letters — with so many others — in a bonfire torching that big sky. I’m a part of his past, but for me, Randy is very much present. I’ve got a new prison pen pal who also understands the value of delish correspondence, and I try to pay it forward where I can.
In his last letter, Randy wrote that another resident at the halfway house had broken into his locker in the middle of the night while he slept and stolen his portable TV. He wanted to retaliate, but he had an actual future to consider now, so instead of avenging the loss he got a bigger lock for his locker and, wouldn’t you know it, another TV was already on its way courtesy of good ol’ Boopsy.