My friend Carolyn has been in prison for over 10 years. We met through a mutual friend who told me that she was looking for a pen pal. We’ve been writing to each other for nearly eight years. I tell Carolyn about trivial, ridiculous, and important things. She shares her sorrows, challenges, and joys.
Carolyn never asks for anything. When I ask what she needs, she usually responds ‘nothing that you can give.’ Carolyn rarely writes about prison. She calls it a “tiny, lifeless place.” For her, prison life is mostly boring and always violent. She worries most for the young women who arrive daily. She wonders how quickly ‘the light will go out’ of them.
Carolyn says that her light dimmed on her 45th day in custody. It took me two years to ask what happened that day. She answered “nothing special, I opened my eyes and knew that it wasn’t actually a dream.”
Carolyn is one of my biggest cheerleaders. She is encouraging and always asks me to send her any articles where I am quoted and anything that I write. We don’t have arguments. I can only recall one time when she got angry at me. I was frustrated and tired so I threatened to stop speaking out about various injustices. She wrote me a scathing letter chastising me. I’ve kept the letter as motivation. It ended with these words:
“What you take for granted and what I hope you will never have to know is that we humans actually speak ourselves into being. You are your voice and your voice is you. You must speak to remind yourself to be.“
I tell Carolyn that she is a natural born writer. She ignores me. But she really is. When I think of her, as I do daily, in that “tiny, lifeless place,” I am overcome with anger which masks my fear and melancholy. I don’t like to be afraid so I sometimes trick myself into imagining that prison is not actually hell. I can’t stay fearful, sad, and angry every day. It would be debilitating so I pretend.
Yesterday, I saw an article in the Huffington Post about a photo shoot by stars of Orange is the New Black for Elle Magazine. The article mostly features photographs. Below is one of them.
I looked at the photographs and couldn’t help but think of Carolyn in her cage, in that “tiny, lifeless place.” Several years ago, I asked her if I could publish a letter that she wrote to me about being invisible. She declined. I was annoyed and had absolutely no right to be. Months later, she wrote again about her invisibility. I don’t have permission to share her letter but I don’t think she’ll begrudge me one sentence.
“I am ghost which means that only the most intuitive humans can actually see me.”
I am ghost… I have never forgotten her words. Not I am a ghost but I am ghost. Disembodied, not here/here, invisibly visible, dead/living, in between. Millions of prisoners are ghost. I look again at the glossy photos of the Orange is the New Black stars and I know that those images are about and for us on the outside, in the ‘free’ world, to assuage our fear, to hide our inhumanity, and to pretend that prison is not hell.
Carolyn is nowhere in those images. She is ghost…