on correspondence with prisoners


A great majority of our clients here at the law office are incarcerated. So, the majority of the letters we receive come from prison. In my two years of reading prisoner mail, I have noticed a few recurring trends.

1) Improvisation: Envelopes and writing paper are often at a premium on the inside, so we will get correspondence on all different kinds of paper - paper torn from legal pads, scraps of other paper, or even the back of informational legal materials on Three Strikes, or Understanding Your Appeal. The creativity shown in finding writing materials pales in comparison to what we see in the elaborate folding of these letters. It's not origami, since convicted felons rarely attempt animal shapes, but it compares favorably to the note-folding I saw in high school.

2) Blessings from God: A surprising percentage of our letters don't ask for anything of us. Nearly all ask God to bless us. There are many missives that do nothing more than thank us for our help, or wish us well. It is a little bit heartbreaking to read a letter of that nature, and then look up the client's record to find that they're serving a life sentence, and that our efforts haven't reduced their time at all. Of course, their faith in God hasn't been shaken by the sentence, so their attorney has probably let them down less than He has.

3) Unintentional irony: Prisoners' letters are often filled with phrases that have been placed in quotation marks for no apparent reason. A message might read, "I am writing to request 'legal assistance' for my appeal. I have been 'unjustly' convicted due to the 'conspiracy' of the judge, the district attorney, and the public defenders office. If there is 'any way' you can help me, I would 'greatly appreciate' the 'assistance'."

These letters read like they've been run through The Sarcasterizer (unfortunately, now offline). It's as if these prisoners are incarcerated hipsters, too jaded and cool to get their sentences reversed, but going along with the appeals process just for the ironic value. They might be onto something. Roughly 80% all criminal cases that go to trial result in a conviction, a figure that jumps to almost 90% for indigent defendants, and only about 5% of criminal appeals are successful. California's criminal justice system: So bad, it's good.


You forgot my two favorite things about client mail. 1) Spelling so creative you have to sound out the word to understand what word they're actually trying to spell. 2) Gifts. Whether they be elaborate paintings, pictures from magazines, interesting articles or a little poem, clients really know how to show their appreciation for even getting an appeal or just having someone listen to them. All joking aside, I really feel for the clients; most of them have terrible stories of broken families, lack of education, stigma from juvenile incidents, mental and social deficiencies. Often I was sickened by the feeling that some of them never even had a chance, so it made me feel good that we could at least offer them the comfort that someone was trying to do something for them. "God bless."

My friend Matt works with this organization in SF that does similar work, specificially dealing with incarcerated mothers who are often in jail for what they did to their abusive partners. It`s nearly impossible for me to hear about it it`s so upsetting. Thank God for unintentionl irony and ninja star envelopes--could you even do the job without that stuff?

I think the extremely dark comedic elements make it manageable, or maybe we focus on the gallows humor as a defense mechanism. Still, there's something horribly but hilarious (for example) when an appellant calls and speaks in a barely audible whisper, which is inexplicable until you realize she's calling from Kinko's, and the employees don't realize she's using their phone.

I was going to include some links for websites that facilitate writing letters to prisoners, but they all seem to be devoted to spreading the Gospel or matchmaking.

There's a sort of fraternal umbrella of the helping professions-- your post reminds me of a conversation I had Saturday night with a friend's boyfriend, who is a public defender in Oakland. We discovered that he knew several of my bosses through crossover cases where he visited kids in Children's Hospital, and we shared our MediCal blues.

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