Open Letter to a Friend in Jail (Again)

by Janelle Harris

Hey Shawn,

I hope you’re at peace, as much at peace as you can be under the circumstances. I hope you’re eating well and taking care of yourself physically. I hope you have the basic necessities — not including the one you’re more than likely substituting with a bottle of lotion and a smutty magazine — and a few faithful people you can count on. And I hope you’re finding a way to cope with being boxed in once again by the four walls of a dank and cramped little cell with a dude you may or may not like, but who is no less forcibly the first person you see when you wake up and the last person you see before you go to bed.

I don’t know why it took me so long to figure out you’d been locked up again. Usually, it’s that automated voice announcing the collect call I’m about to receive from a correctional facility that lets me the deal, even before you get a chance to click over with a “What’s up?” full of tentativeness and shame. Even if you know I’m going to go in with my standard hard silence or long lecture, you call me because you want me to know you’re OK. The lifestyle of a hustler is a minefield of potential pitfalls, and you’ve dodged the worst of them more than a few times, thank God.

Honestly, I was so self-absorbed during a particularly busy stretch earlier this year that I didn’t notice I hadn’t heard from you. I eventually tried to call one of your many numbers (dudes who hustle always have, like, five phones but no minutes), but after doing the dance of multiple voicemail messages, my mission faded until I called again for your birthday a month later. I still couldn’t get in touch with you. Finally, intuition and a little inquisitiveness told me to search the inmate locator on the department of corrections website.

There you were. Living, breathing, but locked up. Again.

For the better part of a decade, I’ve called you my friend, from the time you tried to bag me at the intersection of Prince and Vine, and I, in my infinite airheadedness, didn’t figure out until about a week later that you hadn’t been hanging out on that corner just to shoot the breeze and some craps with the boys. Still, we became good friends. It’s complicated because you are, in essence, two people: Shawn the drug dealer, the hardcore Jersey dude who does only God knows what to get by on the streets, and Shawn my homeboy, the one who lays up in the house and watches the National Geographic channel, who loves spending time with his sons and nieces and nephews because he revels in how unspoiled and innocent kids are, who is the most gentle-spirited and kindhearted man I’ve ever known.

Every drug dealer has a story and most of them are product-of-their-environment heartbreakers that make me and my goody two-shoes upbringing seem like something from a sitcom. I was raised by a single mother and doted on constantly by grandparents who kicked up sand if they missed even one weekend in their normal visitation schedule. Both your parents were addicts and, in their constant foraging for a high, one contracted HIV. Then the other. So when they both finally lost their battles with drugs and AIDS, you were volleyed between family members who really couldn’t afford another mouth to feed, but took you in out of a sense of duty, though not necessarily love. For a while, your aunt sent you to a mental institution for no other reason than she couldn’t really be bothered with you while she was trying to live her own life. You were 7. I can’t even imagine how all of those factors, all of these personal tragedies, affected you. Maybe you could’ve become a psychologist or a dog trainer or a gourmet chef if the stars would’ve aligned in your favor. Instead, you became a drug dealer.

We’re all the time being hit with statistics about black men as part of the prison industrial complex. We lace our theories and concepts with all kinds of fancy terms to explain why it happened and what we can do to keep it from happening some more, but we end up dehumanizing the people at the core by debating the proper methodologies and pedagogies and all kinds of other -ologies to sew up the bleeding wound. It’s one thing to see the numbers laid out on paper; it’s quite another to see a friend’s name among the thousands of brothers being held captive at the same time. A simple search turns up a list replete with telling names like Tyshaun and Melvin and Dontay, all verifying just how many of our men are being caught up. And there you are, just one more in the number.

The last time you came home, we had a long talk. We have a lot of those, but this one in particular sticks out in my mind because you mentioned  you’d gone to church while you were “away,” the first time you’d ever expressed any interest in anything religious outside of asking me to pray for you. (Your aunt, the one who sent you to the psych ward when you were just a kid, was a devout, church-every-Sunday Christian, if that puts two and two together.) You were trying to turn your life around, you said, and I believed you. I want you to know I still believe you. I believe in you, too.

I know the desire is there to change. I’ve seen you struggle with the behavior and mindset that keep you bound. You know it’s a cycle. You’ve said it yourself. But how do go from making — and spending — thousands of dollars literally overnight to being expected to pick up a 9-to-5 and assimilating into the ways of the unimprisoned population? Every time I talked to you, you seemed less and less confident in your ability to make it, to stay on the straight and narrow. You asked me, “How can a nigga in his 30s stop doing the only thing he’s been good at his whole life?”

I don’t know, Love. I really don’t. But I know I want you to be free. Not just physically, to go to the movies or the mall or the bar whenever you feel like it, but free in your mind. And eventually, hopefully, the rest of you will follow.

All love, always,

  • African Mami

    That was heartfelt!! It’s way deeper than the mental, I think it is spiritual too. Battling with inner demons that the naked eye cannot see!

    I, too, I’m rooting for this young man-I don’t know whether he exists or not, but I know his story is told by many behind bars. What a life!

  • chanela

    This was a really sweet letter BUT…if the stars aligned? really? there are tons of people who went through having drug addict parents that doesn’t mean they get a pass to become the very person that aided in their parent’s demise, a drug dealer. Why would anyone want to help some other kid’s parent get hooked on drugs? why not break the cycle for once? seriously, it really isn’t that hard to not break the law and go to jail…let alone go to jail more than once.why waste time and energy on grown folks who should know better? i’m just sayin….

  • Nreedus

    “why waste time and energy on grown folks who should know better?”

    Because it is far easier to sit back and judge someone else’s life. It is much more difficult to love unconditionally and to be a true and honest friend. One example is perpetuated ad nauseum on reality TV shows. The other example is part of the teachings of Jesus Christ.

  • Tash



    THANK YOU! When you know people, personally, it’s hard. you want them to do betterm you know they can do better, and they fall back into that cycle. It’s easy to judge and say “I would never…”.

  • chanela

    Oh god i had a feeling someone would pull the “judging” card. all i’m saying is why cry and make a big deal when this grown adult repeatedly made stupid decisions to land themselves in jail.obviously they don’t care too much about staying out of jail. its not judging its common sense. if certain peopple don’t want to do right then that is on them…and it has nothing to do with “targeting black men” if so many black men are in jail then its not the government’s fault. funny how other races know how to do right and stay out of jail…black folks can do it too

  • kisa


    NEVER stop praying and believing in Shawn. He needs you!
    And please always let him know you are behind him even if he were to take a few steps back again.

    Peace and Blessings….

  • Denise

    Really well-written….praying for your friend Shawn. it is so sad when people aren’t exposed to better and then are stuck….so much wasted talent and time….

  • essencegant

    This was so beautiful. You have such a way with words. I too will pray for your friend.

  • Jessica Hinsley

    i was lock up for 4 years.. i know how if feels when you dont get mail.. or hear from your loved ones so if you have a family or friend that is lock up be there for them.. I see that you have a close friend and stay by his side no matter how mad you get cause he is back there.. sometimes it takes more then one or two times for some people..

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