Wake up, Square Johns

Banning prisoner-to-prisoner mail a fool's decision; why defeat your purpose?
May 31, 2004

I AM A PRISONER. If you look me up on the Oklahoma Department of Corrections website, all you’ll need is my number: 150656. Nothing else matters.

What does matter to the Oklahoma Department of Corrections and to other like-minded prison bureaus such as the one in Texas is that I don’t communicate with other prisoners. Oklahoma has long had a rule that bans correspondence between prisoners, and Texas just followed suit with their own ban this last year.

If you’re a “square john” (that’s prison talk for someone who follows the rules), you’d probably never give this matter a second thought. What’s it matter? They’re prisoners, for goodness sakes.

What’s more, once professional corrections officials informed you that it was a matter of security, you’d say, “Oh, well, I see.” Because, let’s face it, everyone wants to be safe. If the experts say that it’s best …well, that’s their job, and who are we to question them?

In Texas, not only was it deemed a matter of security by the experts, they also cited financial reasons. The sharp irony is that, these days, prisons are exactly that  financial.

There are two reasons security and funding don’t hold water:

1. Illegal correspondence is not done through legal channels. For instance, if a drug deal was being made, the person writing the letter wouldn’t send it through the mail, where it would be read upon entering the other institution. There are, simply, more efficient and safer ways to conduct illicit business.

2. Overall, prisoner-to-prisoner correspondence makes up just a fraction of the total correspondence passing through prison mailrooms. Just like for anyone else, about 50 percent of prisoners’ mail is “junk mail.” Prison officials faced with budget restraints that forced staff cutbacks in the mailrooms could just as easily discard “junk mail” and save half their workload.

Having spent almost two decades in some of Oklahoma’s medium-security prisons, a good portion of that as an increasingly responsible human (possibly even a closet square john), I qualify as an expert, and what this expert says is this: There is nothing more therapeutic than one prisoner helping another.

Another fact: An increasing number of prisoners, all across this country, have spent a considerable amount of time behind bars or walls or fences, and these men have, across the board, grown up and are no longer the young, irresponsible, even dangerous people that they were when they were locked down in the ’70s or the ’80s. In short, they’re tired. They’re ready to go home, and until they can do that, they’re ready to lay down and do their time in a manner unlike that portrayed on Oz or in the media.

Who else would you have talk to a young man who has just come in and is dead set on a path of self-destruction? A man who he will listen to and who has been there? Or yet another authority figure who, in most cases, is more concerned with power than healing?

The men I did time with were the men who helped me get my life back. Jerry, Gibby, Skip, Dookie, Albert, Greg, Rodney and Charlie were the men through whom I met God. They were, and are, the best friends I ever had. They taught me how to be the man I am today, brought me to a point where, last year, the authorities saw fit for me to go home. To ban correspondence between us is not only cruel, it’s detrimental to what I hope is the purpose of prisons: restoration.

When I was growing up and began getting in trouble, my friends’ parents told them not to hang around with me. I was a bad influence. In prison, after I had a spiritual awakening and transformation, that changed. No longer was I persona non grata. In fact, whole families were glad I was their son’s friend. I remember one time my friend, Skip, had a visit. His family is scattered all over the United States and didn’t get to see him much. After one such visit, Skip came bursting into our cell.

“Hurry, Bo, come out on the ball field with me.” I didn’t know what was going on, and he wasn’t waiting around to tell me, so I jumped up and followed him. When we got to the ball field, I asked him what we were doing.

“Look,” he said. Pulling away from the prison was a car with people hanging out the windows, waving and yelling. When they got close enough, I could hear what they were yelling.
“Hi, Bo!”

I looked at Skip, and he said they’d asked him to bring me out there so they could “meet” me. He said they were really glad we were friends. I’d never had that happen to me before, and I still carry the feeling of that experience with me.

Prisons contain people. People need each other.

Bo Don Cox, author of several of Forward Movement’s most popular Day by Day reflection books, has been home for a year now. He credits his prison friends with saving his life and making it possible for him to touch, and save, others. Today, he works in a drug and alcohol treatment center.

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