Stephen Newman

Pen Pals Saved My Life by Stephen Newman

In less than 48 hours, I’ll know my fate — will I be released, or will I be stuck here for potentially five more years?

As I sit here tonight, stressing about the decision to be made on Wednesday, I’m thinking back, remembering the ten years I’ve spent in prison thus far.

I owe a huge debt of gratitude to one group of people in particular. They’re strangers, from all around the world. Mostly women, some men. They range in age from 18 to 70. They live in Michigan, Norway, New Jersey, Bangladesh, Russia, Virginia, Malta, and everywhere in between. They were penpals — and each one of them reached out to me to bring happiness into my life.

They didn’t have to write me. They didn’t have to spend time getting a pen and paper, writing their thoughts, buying stamps, placing a stamp on the envelope, driving to the post office to mail the letter. They didn’t have to, but they did, out of the kindness of their hearts.

Since 2008, I have had hundreds of pen pals. Most only wrote two or three letters. Some wrote for a year or two. Three have been writing me for almost my entire sentence.

Each penpal brought something meaningful into my life. The variety was spectacular. I had the lesbian in Ireland who lived on a farm with her girlfriend and worked from home as a customer service representative for Apple. I had the college professor from Canada who fell in love with one of his female students, then moved to Germany to tour with a heavy metal band, and now is a successful author with best-sellers on Amazon. I had the shy and introverted 19-year-old college student in Virginia who turned to me for emotional support after she got arrested for shoplifting (and her dad yelled at her). The Native American makeup artist in Nebraska who became one of my closest friends — we talk on the phone at least once a month and have the best phone chemistry in the world. The married woman in South Africa who worked at a car dealership and sent me tons of travel brochures for different resorts and game reserves in Kwa Zulu Natal. She was my very first penpal — I’ll never forget her kindness. The agoraphobic tattooed woman in Washington who liked to tell me her secrets. The woman in Bombay, India, who was convinced that the USA was the most dangerous country in the world. The lawyer from Massachusetts who ordered me ten candy bars on Halloween of 2011, then never wrote again. The hispanic woman who ran a music store in southern California, whom I started to develop feelings for after a few phone calls, and then she vanished. The Russian girl with the crush on Shaquille O’Neal. The park ranger in Louisiana who always sent me the most amazing photographs of the nearby wildlife, while never forgetting my birthday. The 70-year-old woman in Washigton who was always willing to listen to my relationship troubles and give me advice to help me stay sane. The psychology professor in California who writes the most entertaining letters about her students and colleagues, and makes me feel more like a human, less like an inmate. The chicken farmer in Hawaii who helped me become more spiritual. The bi-polar man in Pennsylvania who challenged me to a game of chess-by-mail. And of course, Anja, the mercedes benz mechanic from Norway and Slovenia, who reminds me every day how amazing I am.

I only keep in touch with a few pen pals today — most stopped writing for whatever reason. Things change, life changes, the thought of writing to an inmate may have seemed like a great idea in 2012, but not so great in 2018. Most penpals vanished without ever saying goodbye. Of the hundreds of penpals who stopped writing me over the past ten years, only one — the 19-year-old shoplifter in Virginia — wrote to let me know she was going to stop writing because her new boyfriend insisted. I appreciated this act of kindness more than she will ever know).

Each pen pal brought something wonderful to my otherwise dreary and depressing life in prison. Whether it was pictures of wildlife, pictures of them in a bubble bath, drawings, jokes, stories, flirting, someone to discuss books with, postal chess games, or just someone who was willing to listen to me without judging me, someone who was willing to treat me like a human, not an inmate, someone able to help me temporarily forget I was in prison, someone to make me smile or laugh, someone to educate me on topics I knew nothing about…each and every penpal has helped make my life what it is today. When I could no longer experience the world, they brought the world to me. They gave me something to look forward to, and so many reasons to smile.

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843


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