Over These Prison Walls – Connecting with a Friend

“You still on TV?” asked the Pelican Bay State Prison guard at the front gate.  It’s been a while since I anchored the news, but where better to lose track of time than a place where it stands still?

Many times I had been through the front gate, most as a Eureka TV reporter.  And years ago when my brother was there, Nina and I would drive up early Saturday mornings.  We made our mark—the tall awkward anchorman and his stunningly beautiful bride.

This time, I came neither as a reporter nor as a brother.  I came as a friend to meet a man I had never seen, but a man as close as a brother can be.

They love their television at Pelican Bay.  And sooner or later, an on-air reporter gets an inmate letter.  I’m not sure what one particular inmate saw in me, but he sure liked my female co-anchor, Pamela Wu.  So his letters were addressed to the two of us—words for me, romantic drawings for her.

For years, I never replied.  But that changed when I realized that I could write to him in Spanish, my way of learning the language.  And he could almost understand me.

So for years I corresponded, writing about sports, prison life and family.  I learned the Spanish words for football, attorneys and family dysfunction.  He came to know more about me than anyone, even Nina.

Sadly, my family did not understand my bond with him.  “Watch out for him,” Nina’s son would say.  They thought I was sharing too much family information.  God forbid I should ever do that.   They also said I was too trusting.   Guilty as charged.  Much to their distress, I continued writing.  I love distressing them.

Through my letters, Spanish became more than a word game.  It became a second language.  Even on the face of it, he and the language have changed my life.  I owed him a visit to thank him.

So, on that crisp October morning, I walked across the courtyard.  Beside me walked a Manila man, a retired teacher, who also visits an inmate.  I’m sure Nina would have been with me.  For all her worry about things I said and did, she would always stand by me, approvingly nodding her head.  Cuba, the Vatican, Jordan—we had seen a lot.  And to me, this was every bit as meaningful.

I was late, the inmate told me as he whirled around in his chair to face me.  He smiled, amused by the irony of his own words.  In fact, I had almost been turned back at the gate.  Guards wouldn’t let me through because of my pacemaker.  It and their metal detectors don’t get along.  I don’t like it either—but at least I’m here.

By thick glass, high-security inmates are separated from their visitors.  We talked through telephone receivers, a scratchy and faint sound-quality one step advanced from tin cans and wet string.

For nearly two hours in Spanish, we talked about our friendship and our families.  We talked about our strong mothers whose spirits still guide us.  And we talked about our common love for the tiny Korean woman, Nina, with whom I shared 20 years.  He had known me almost all that time.

Of course I’ll visit him again.  Friendship like that is uncommon.  It is also emblematic of love we all have for the taking—love strong and omnipresent, love stronger than prison walls and as deep as eternity.

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