I have a pen pal who is serving a life sentence at a nearby state prison. We have corresponded for years. He is a good pen pal. He writes a fine letter.

Recently, he wrote that he wants to start a blog about his life as a prisoner.

When City of Asylum last month announced an evening of readings from the award-winning writings of prisoners, I attended and took notes to include in my next letter, to encourage him.

At the event, Sarah Shotland, an assistant professor of English at Chatham University and director of Chatham’s Words Without Walls prison writing program, introduced the readers, all but two of whom were stand-ins for writers who could not be with us that evening. The two who read their own work have served time.

The readers read from essays, poems and short stories that in recent years have won or placed in the Pen America prison writing awards, three local works among them: “Living Grave” by Ralph “Malakki” Bolden,  “Sabrina” by Lynne Schaffer Agnew and “Examination” by Eric Boyd.

The capacity-plus audience was warned that most of the material would be graphic and disturbing.

No surprise there. What was surprising was how excellent much of the work was. I’m ashamed for being surprised. Another learning moment. 

Edward Ji, Matthew Mendoza, Elizabeth Hawes, William Myrl Smitherman, Sean J. White and Eric Boyd, among others, are proof positive that prison writing is a rich vein of raw, elegant, funny, tormented, painful and hopeful storytelling from people who may be locked away but whose voices can, and should, break free.

Having a pen pal behind bars has been enlightening. His life was redirected when, high on Valium, vodka and rage, he stabbed a friend to death one night in 1982. (I am not naming him or the facility he is in out of respect for the victim’s family.)

Most of the time, his thoughts on paper are matter-of-fact — this is my world; I’m making the best of it.

He writes of his frustration over bureaucratic absurdities and makes the crazy and chaotic sound more like a movie than real life. He steers clear of anything too troubling within the prison, writing instead about current events, the political swamp, the Pirates, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette — which he delivered as a kid — books, ideas and his passion for history.

For several health emergencies, he has been transported to Allegheny General Hospital, and in his letters, he relates his amazement at the changes in Pittsburgh that he sees through the car windows.

In a recent letter during a spate of beautiful weather, he fantasized about being at Deep Creek Lake in Maryland.

After the night of the readings, I wondered if, after a visit from family or friends, he is subjected to the degrading full-body probe that one of the writers described. I don’t know how much he has been dehumanized because I haven’t had the heart to ask.

In “Discovery,” Sean J. White, who went to prison when he was 19 and has won Pen America recognition for drama and poetry, writes about prison as “a zoo for humans”; “… back in my tomb”; “I am eroding.”

“The guards like to come by at 5 a.m. to catch us sleeping so they can say we refused our only chance of sunlight for the day.”

Because of model behavior over years, my pen pal says he has some privileges. Having done extensive interviews with him and about him for a 1995 story, and after years of correspondence, I am certain that, had it not been for the influence of drugs and alcohol, he would never have landed in prison.

In 1991, he received his bachelor’s degree in psychology through a University of Pittsburgh correspondence class. He has held classes for fellow inmates in public speaking and writing. He helped organize an inmate art exhibit that was held at the Braddock Carnegie Library several years ago. Now in his 60s, he said he still dreams of being a teacher someday. 

His letters are evidence that he has mastered resilience and good humor — the best defenses against defeat.

Words Without Walls takes creative writing instructors at Chatham to the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House, a residential treatment and support home for women who are trying to overcome and recover from addiction. Ms. Shotland said the program reaches about 300 people per year.

“Teaching at the jail has changed my own life and my writing,” she said.

She told the audience that, like all writers who have doubts about their audience, prisoners are particularly insecure.

“But the crowd here tonight confirms for prisoners that there is a reason to keep writing,” she said.

Diana Nelson Jones: [email protected] or412-263-1626. [email protected]