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How to reply when inmate discusses their case

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Xo50
Xo50's picture
How to reply when inmate discusses their case

A lot of the people who have been doing it for awhile have some really good advice on here, so maybe you can help me with this one before I sit down later this week to write fresh reply letters -

Sometimes my pen pals discuss their case, and tell me (not in wild detail, but they do give me step by step of what happened) about their actions.  They also do explain how they’ve become better people since then, how they’ve learned to avoid making serious mistakes.  So I tend to focus on encouraging those things, the education, good works for the community, family, healthy hobbies, etc. because that seems to be more important and I can at least be a good friend to them in that department.  

I have no clue what to say about the actual crime they were formerly involved in (and they were violent crimes, so not sure if that makes a difference?) when they tell me about it.  So I don’t end up saying anything and just talk about the other stuff instead.  I’m not even always sure how to feel, because crime in general seems so confusing and foreign to me.  I just don’t get it.  I’ve tried reading about it and there are so many theories out there on why people do what they do.  

It’s kind of ironic, because they love it when I talk about my life, and tell them if I’m stressed at work, or have anything I’m trying to figure out, because they love being open to giving me advice.  One joked he’d love being my therapist, he finds my life fascinating.  But I would have no clue how to play that role back when it comes to certain issues.

Do other people’s pen pals talk about their case and former crime?  Do you have any words of wisdom you give to them?

raspberry
raspberry's picture

I honestly think you're doing the right thing currently. Something I like to include is just thank them for sharing that information with you? It's obviously an indicator that they trust you a lot and feel comfortable talking to you about the topic. That way you are recognising what they said. I really wouldn't look at it as if you're trying to be their therapist. I don't think that's your responsibility as a PP. I think that also adds some unnecessary pressure on yourself about how to respond! I recently experienced a similar situation when one of my PP's was discussing his strained relationships with family members and I was really stumbed on how to respond. I had to remind myself that I'm not trying to fill a therapist role (which I admit is kind of difficult considering I have a degree in psychology as well as one in justice). There's absolutely a ton on theories which try to explain human behaviour, especially criminal behaviour, so I wouldn't be too hard on yourself for it seeming so foreign to you, but if I can elaborate on anything in particular let me know.

raspberry
raspberry's picture

stumped* oops, sorry

Xo50
Xo50's picture

Thanks raspberry!  Thanking a person for that much trust IS a good idea.  And yes, at first I had a few worries, because I wasn’t sure if it was fair to the victims of crime for me to take part in the program, they often speak out against the pen pal programs and say the inmates do not deserve to have friends.  And some directors of prisons say that inmates shouldn’t be allowed contact with the outside world because they’re too dangerous.  But I thought a lot about all that and realized that was really unfair, to punish a person with emotional cruelty by denying them anyone who cares about them and the harm of stereotyping every single person as “dangerous forever” when they’re trying to get better.  And America’s prisons are slowly changing, and they’re realizing European prisons focus heavily on reform and rehabilitation...and it’s working.  Here a lot of the time the system is set up to fail people, but new laws are helping people work hard at a second chance and get their crimes off their records, let every inmate earn their way to parole, etc.  And I think that’s a good thing.

I also worried a little about if it was dangerous at first, because there’s the “this or that case about the pen pal” but it sounds like those pen pals were taking the ex-cons into their homes right away and getting involved with them sexually, and things went very badly.  The forum had a lot of people getting into relationships or marrying their pen pals, and I was a little confused because you hear one thing, then another with this type of thing...and the bad cases are always VERY BAD.  And the people on the forum who got married to their pen pals are doing great, they admit it’s tough from time to time, but they’re happy so that’s all that matters!  But after doing it for...I’m in month four now, I’ve had a really good experience and nothing that was weird or off, just people who were really glad to see pictures and talk about work and family and it’s like any other friendship. It was sort of overly-excited on all ends at first, which is typical with meeting someone new, but it’s starting to settle down into “hey this person will stick around in my life as my pal.  That is pretty cool.”  I would get nervous they would think I would abandon them and let them know if I was busy at work for a few weeks and couldn’t write, because they told me that people would write in and then reconsider and say “look, me writing to a prisoner makes my family nervous you’ll hurt us” and the inmate would feel crushed and a bit heartbroken, like no one would EVER want to really care about them again as a long term friend.

I did try to figure out criminology, and wasn’t sure...anger issues?  Impulse?  Do some people just tick differently?  And I’m not going to even pretend I understand addiction and all that, because I don’t.  I’m sorry it happens to people because I know it’s an illness, but it's really hard for me to put myself in another person’s shoes when I have no clue what that would feel like or what they’re going through.  I’m not so sure I’ll ever be able to understand why with crimes.  

I realized I have some limits with it...I can’t write to people who hurt children in any way.  I wouldn’t be able to handle that emotionally, at all.  We’ve done lots of trainings at work to help spot and prevent any sort of child abuse, and watching videos on it with cases turns me into a mess.   

So yup, I’m definitely not in a good spot to be a psychiatrist, and I agree it’s not a pen pals job, but if they’re happy with the other parts of friendship, hopefully that will count the most!!!  And you must be a very good psychologist, I felt comfortable opening up about this lol.

Mateo
Mateo's picture

My PP is similar in that he discusses his crimes but not in complete detail - he does it step by step and little by little. I like hearing about the way he perceives it and how his version of events happened. However, I have told him... and he knows... that we both come from completely different walks of life. He was born and raised in the heart of the hood, and so the lifestyle he had was normal for him. That's why I don't and won't ever judge him for it. Whereas I'm from the opposite kind of lifestyle, and he knows this. I think it's probably normal for your Penpal to know their lifestyle is different from yours and I'm sure they're not offended or deterred when you struggle to respond to it. But I think it's also good that they feel comfortable in confiding in you with their crimes. You have their trust for them to give you details they would normally keep to themselves. Just try to make yourself feel at ease with the fact he's telling you it, and you continue responding how you feel comfortable. Then it's better for both of you. But that's just my 2 cents.

Kirsten
Kirsten's picture

My penpals did and do discuss their crime/s with me, in various degrees of detail.Got no problems with it so far as I did some research on their cases before starting to write.

Being a psychologist by profession (no, not forensic, school psychology and vocational college stuff, plus some certificates of coaching and mediation) helps also here.

I'm not being easily shocked, heard and seen enough in working with families to mostly just think "okaaay, so that's that." when my pps finally start opening up about it.

I don't ask for it, but I'm not ignoring it, either. If they're ready to talk, they'll just do. And my reaction depends on what and how they talk about it. Sometimes I ask a question back, sometimes I just make a remark on sth,. that's been said. Dealt with it situationally, no common receipt here.

One of my pps made it easy: He just wrote me a ten pages letter which was somewhat of a bio, including his case.

Another one mentioned it when we had been three or four months into writing and never dealt with it afterwards again.

Another wrote very openly about it "to get the elephant out of the room". He's pretty straightforward anyway, on most subjects, dealing "heads on" with things.

My most introverted one is dealing with a lot of shame and guilt, havuing a hard time facing things and talking about them. I'm not pressing it onto him. He's having a kid, though and when he spoke about where and with whom the kid is living now, it inevitably evoked some questions including subjects relating to his case, i.e. why this kid doesn't live with his ex wife (the kid's mom, etc., etc). No, he did not do anything to his ex wife, he dealt drugs and with the kid's mom being one of his "customers" I guess you get part of the pic. But there were other things as well and when he finally told me what I know about it by now (I still don't know everything, I'm sure), he was assuming I wouldn't write back. But I did and since then he slowly gives me the bits 'n pieces. But I let him have his own pace, it's his decision what to tell to whom and when.

And those of my pps who committed the most violent crime, he's, well, not suppressing it, but he isn't openly facing the consequences fully. Is always a bit talking around it, circling about it, but there again, he'll know when he's ready to talk. He's still got quite a bit of time to do and I'm not on the impatient side of life. It'll come when he's ready and I'm ready and the writing is ready.

But I realize that my counseling background is making a difference here. I'm used to hearing dark stuff, taking it without letting it in too deep and dealing with it. I'm not only the chitty-chatty- let's have a nice time penpal, there has always been that other tone as well. Because that's me also, despite having a sense of humor and talking trivia, too. But I got tthe right guys for that. Though being able to talk with almost anyone if I wish, I wouldn't call myself an extrovert. So I get none of these happy go lucky guys, either and that's okay. 

KateAndrews
KateAndrews's picture

I have never discussed any of thier cases. I have acknowledged them if they are up for appeal and asked what they expect from that appeal.
I know what they are down for but I am more interested in what they are doing now, what they need to do to achieve parole when it comes round (if they can parole) and what their future holds.
Obviously if a penpal chooses to discuss his crime then I do acknowledge it. But most of mine have already been down for a cracking length of time and have a shed load more to do. They are not dwelling in what they did and have moved on.
What they choose to tell me is upto them.
But I see no point delving in the past unless it's thier own thoughts and emotions that keep them there. I don't think it's healthy but then that's my opinion.
I'm sorry I can't offer any advice or pearls of wisdom on this topic.

Kirsten
Kirsten's picture

I don't think discarding the past and just move on is a healthy thing to do when you've got wounds to heal, to acknowledge pain you inflicted on others and a future in which you want to avoid repeating stuff.

Doesn't mean to dwell upon it all the time, no, but to just ignore it wouldn't be my cup of tea, either.

Xo50
Xo50's picture

Thanks Mateo!  Yes, I am finding that comfortable place with my pen pals.  I’m glad you and yours have such a good correspondence.  And me too, I was raised very “sheltered prep school” and grew up thinking everyone in prison was just like Hannibal Lecter, lol!!  And believe or not I used to agree with the death penalty (I don’t anymore) because I thought that if you took someone’s life, you owed yours.  I didn’t realize until I was older and a bit more “in the real world” that nothing is ever that simple or black and white and people have very different experiences and outlooks than my own.  You’re so right, sometimes we live in different worlds from other people, but that can make the correspondence and friendship so interesting, too, you know ??  And judging is definitely something I want to not to - it can be tough, I think it’s normal to have opinions on things people do or say, but I remember to keep them to myself or think positive and say “okay what do I like about this person?”  Seems to make me and other people happy and keep the peace.

Xo50
Xo50's picture

I think you’re right, it does make a difference Kirsten, with having that background.  Someone with experience in how the human mind works might be able to reply about a case, involving drugs, where I always thought that was something that was supposed to be whispered about, and avoided.  Hard stuff, anyway, I know a lot of other things are being legalized most places and have medical benefits so I’m not afraid to say “good for them” and support medical things.  Or something people only would watch on TV like Breaking Bad, to me it’s like...a part of life that I know happens, but I’ve never remotely been around.  I wouldn’t say I’m naive, I KNOW it’s out there, but I would say I simply don’t have any experience, even with learning about it in school, as my classes were mostly art, music, drama focus.  And being an extrovert, even in daily life activities, it’s not exactly shallow...but I don’t mind small talk or the conversation being 24/7 fun and actively encourage that.  So my pen pals are happy go lucky, and when they did talk to me about their crimes, they were very straightforward, like look, I think you should know I did this, and I regret it.  So I’m glad I can be there to listen, but yes, it’s harder for me to know what to say, and I tend to shy away from negativity when I know most people are better at handling it. And my pen pals are smart people, I think they understand all that.  Maybe time will help too, my writing is becoming more natural, and I feel myself opening up about my life to more than JUST hobbies.

Xo50
Xo50's picture

Actually that is helpful, Kate!  To know that you acknowledged it, I think my problem is I would just go silent because I wasn’t sure what to say in that type of situation.  I mean, I’d write, but I’d totally avoid the topic because I was sort of afraid of saying the wrong thing, and making it worse.  But it helps to know that other people have just said “thank you for trusting me” and that’s been enough for their pen pals.

Kirsten
Kirsten's picture

Takes all kinds to make a world, Athena! *smile* And I didn't mean to say extroverts are being superficial. Sorry, if I came acrosss that way.

It's just that I know I couldn't be that way myself. Chitchatting all the time is exhausting for me, draining a lot of my energy. 

Besides, hm... negativity... positivity... is it so? I don't know. Being disabled myself I always had to deal with stuff many ppl consider being negative. But some of it proved to be positive for me. Not that having a handicap is sth. I'd recommend (could've done w/o), but... hm, I don't think I'd be who I am if things hadn't been what they were.

So, no, it takes all kinds. It also takes those chatting about hobbies, why not. And there are also lots of ppl who don't wish to talk about their cases, which is ok, too. It's just not what I'm in for, you know. 

Xo50
Xo50's picture

Kirsten you definitely didn’t come across that way, I just think it’s one of those common stereotypes but you don’t seem at all like a person who judges others.  I think psychologists get stereotyped as “tells other folks what to do” when they’re actually just trying to get people to look at all sides and think about thinks subjectively, so they can make more informed decisions.  I was wondering if negative was the right word to use too.  I miss the diversity of living in a larger city because we had more people and more public transportation and people will chat with each other on the metro to make their trip to work go by quicker.  I’d often sit with a lady in a wheelchair while on the train, as she would be headed to her college while I was headed to work and she was without a doubt the smartest person I had ever met - she was only a junior in college and had already published two books, one advocating for the rights of the disabled and one on child psychology, so she was very interesting to talk to.  She told me at her college some people could say things like “hey but you can’t go out dancing with your disability, doesn’t that bug you to miss out” and I was surprised people would be that blunt over something and ask her such personal questions or assume she automatically felt negative over things.  Especially because I knew her as an accomplished author and someone who was really cool to talk to every weekday morning.  Living in a small town, I can walk everywhere and don’t get to ride a metro around and have those types of conversations.  

I just checked my mail and am getting ready to write some awesome letters!!  It’s nice to feel a little more prepared to handle things and go into this with a better point of view.  I think my heart is in the right place for this, but I needed that encouragement and also an outlook other than just my own.

FashionableKitty
FashionableKitty's picture

None of my pen pals have discussed their cases, since we're still starting out with our correspondence (Eastern Europe and all that), but I do have some real world friends, who are, shall we say... rather colourful.
Just a few weeks ago one friend mentioned an upcoming job that was pretty dangerous. I just told him to be careful, telling him I'd rather not be visiting him in prison or in the graveyard in a jokey tone. He appreciated the comment :p This is how I usually respond in such circumstances, try to show concern and disapproval, but not come across as judgy. It seems to be working pretty well, but again, this is not written correspondence, so I don't know how useful this information is. I'm actually pretty sure I'LL be asking for writing advice soon! :)

Northernyank
Northernyank's picture

All of my PP's have discussed their crimes with me, anywhere from petty thefts to premeditated murder. I remind the ones that have committed the more serious offenses to keep quiet about the details, their thoughts, feelings etc because everything is monitored or I could be called to testify during an appeal. Yes, I had one pen-pal, who suffers from a mental illness and doesn't take his prescribed medications get into details and give me his thoughts on what he had done (committed murder). I'm probably a little more desensitzed to these things than most folks when it comes to hearing about them from PP,  but I do have a lot of trouble with details of my husband's crime. I've read most of the reports, and I get the gist of what happened, but it can be a little harder to swallow, so to speak.

I never initiate the topic, and I make a point of telling them early on, I'll never ask because for most it was a traumatic experience. They've all been in prison for a long time, so they have a certain detachment to the crime(s) they committed at this point, but an incredible self awareness as to what led them down that path to begin with. Whether that will change the behavior when they are released is another story.

Nenn
Nenn's picture

I haven't discussed about crimes with my PP and only would if he felt like it. 

I think it's a healthy thing to do at some point with someone. To talk/write through what happened and why and make peace with the past. It's something that can't be changed but they can choose not to go that road again. And to process it and deal with the emotions is important.

I would advice to keep doing what's natural to you. They probably wouldn't want you to try and be something you're not. If you feel like you don't know how to react on what they're telling you, I would go and tell that. I would tell them I'm not sure what to say or how because the criminal world is so unfamiliar to me, that I'm hearing them and appreciate that they have this trust on me and want to share their past, but I'm having a hard time finding the right words to go with. 

"And yes, at first I had a few worries, because I wasn’t sure if it was fair to the victims of crime for me to take part in the program, they often speak out against the pen pal programs and say the inmates do not deserve to have friends.  And some directors of prisons say that inmates shouldn’t be allowed contact with the outside world because they’re too dangerous.  But I thought a lot about all that and realized that was really unfair, to punish a person with emotional cruelty by denying them anyone who cares about them and the harm of stereotyping every single person as “dangerous forever” when they’re trying to get better.  And America’s prisons are slowly changing, and they’re realizing European prisons focus heavily on reform and rehabilitation...and it’s working.  Here a lot of the time the system is set up to fail people, but new laws are helping people work hard at a second chance and get their crimes off their records, let every inmate earn their way to parole, etc.  And I think that’s a good thing."

That's right. The victims and their families/friends have all the rights to be angry but isolating the prisoners from non-criminal people is stupid. They are already facing the consequences of their actions and many of them will be locked up for insane amount of years or even their whole life. More hate/denying positive relationships will not make them any better, more likely it will make them worse. Hate won't encourage people to become better, it won't teach them to care. Good, caring relationships instead.. well, they can make a difference. 

Xo50
Xo50's picture

Fashionable, very true, sometimes using humor in that manner helps show a person cares!  And hope you gets lots of good letters and make new friends with the program.  Pen paling is a lot of fun.

Xo50
Xo50's picture

Thank you, Northern, I’ll keep that in mind and remind them about not going into any details because everything is monitored.  The things they told me were all public record details.  And they left out anything that was harsh, the newspaper articles about it where way more descriptive.  I don’t think I could handle hearing too much anyway.  I DID figure out how to acknowledge it, as it all came up again in current batches of letters, more in the way of “hey, I have to go to court soon for this or that, just wanted to you to know I was a toxic person in the past” and I replied, “you’re my friend, I signed up to be a pen pal not a judge and I like our conversations on art and books, and I’m here to stick around.”  I Thought about it all after getting the new letters and looking at the way they’re phasing this I think this might be a matter of needing assurance I wouldn’t stop being their friend over their previous actions...most of mine were in the “needs mail” section, and they all did say people would write in, then change their minds due to my pen pal having committed a crime.

 

Xo50
Xo50's picture

Nenn, I get so much back from pen paling too...one of my pen pals is encouraging his sister to continue with her education, and he told her some of the experiences I shared with him from going to school.  I love that part of it...hearing my pen pals are having good connections with family and friends.  I looked up the pictures of prisons my pen pals are in and some of those cells are no bigger than my sofa, that must be so incredibly boring, especially on times of solitary or lockdown.  I’m really glad mail makes them happy.

Nenn
Nenn's picture

Yup, I like the way it can really brighten up both of our day. I'm fairly happy with my life but for this little time that I have been receiving letters, they have surely added some more joy to my life. And already made me think about life on a bit larger scale. I'm actually surprised how kind of therapeutic it feels to sit down and take your time to write down some thoughts, not only some deep thoughts but even something very mundane. It's definitely not a one-way-road :) 

jokluis
jokluis's picture

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