We are Humans: Stories from the Incarcerated by Martin Vicario

This week I am sharing my reflections on a journal entry from Martin Vicario in October 2021. I encourage you to visit the Journal Archive if you are interested in seeing more works directly from prisoners.



We are Humans: Stories from the Incarcerated by Martin Vicario

This entry stood out to me because it speaks to what Gary means when he describes Prisoner Express’s mission to rehabilitate by offering means of creative expression. For most, writing doesn’t carry much value—students will tell you that they dread it, grimacing as they recall the caffeine-fueled all-nighters in high school the day before a paper was due. Others will tell you it’s just too difficult because the words don’t come naturally. And then there are those who can presumably write, but don’t know what to write about. It’s the infamous writer’s block that seems to descend upon us right as we need inspiration. The act of writing itself is invaluable, though, as Vicario writes: “Most letters written will eventually make it to the mailbox. Other letters never make it to the envelope. The letter is placed underneath the mattress and disregarded. The practice is one that declares release.” I know this little bit pertains specifically to letters, but I would say that it applies to writing in general.

For those of us who have braved the rewrites because things just didn’t sound right, or flow well, we’re good friends with “the letter [that] is placed underneath the mattress or disregarded.” Maybe the word disregarded is a bit too strong…There are often sentences or phrases that can be salvaged. I can’t agree more with the phrase “The practice is one that declares release.” Even as children, many of us keep diaries where we write down moments that stick with us or secrets we can’t bear to speak aloud. “The pen and the paper.” Two things that will never judge us or our thoughts, and perhaps that’s what’s most comforting. The biggest challenge is to let go of the desire to want to find the perfect words

“Every letter going out is a story pertaining to someone’s life, their thoughts and feelings…Words matter because they connect us. Words can encourage, give life, or take it away.” Even something as seemingly insignificant as a couple sentence description of someone’s day reveals how they see the world and what they value. In a time like the pandemic, with COVID waves like the ups and downs of a roller coaster, words close the distance between us. Maybe you’ll find that, because of the limitations around in-person interaction, you’ve grown in your ability to express yourself through writing. Writing isn’t really a magical art. It’s true that some people are better at expressing themselves than others (a “way with words”), but that’s something that we can all develop with practice. It starts with freeing yourself of inhibitions, of that voice that keeps telling you to leave the paper blank until you’ve found the right words.

The phrase “Words can encourage, give life, or take it away” was thought-provoking to me. I don’t know what the intended meaning was, but I’ll try to make sense of it here. Words “give life” in a figurative sense, helping us understand the world around us and interact with one another. The encouragement is something I understand in the context of the phrase: “The practice is one that declares release.” In times when we feel like we are losing ourselves, or struggling, writing can lift us out of sadness and strife. The phrase “take it away” puzzled me quite a bit, but I was thinking of it in a literal sense: decrees, speeches, and words wielded by powerful individuals historically have destined some for death, especially in times of war. It’s mindboggling to think that words, strung together into phrases and sentences can influence entire masses and the course of history. In war, weapons are really carrying out the bidding of words, warped to fit philosophies and promote legitimacy.

“Still, nothing compares to mail, especially for prisoners and people hospitalized.” Words wear many cloaks—text messages, “the old fashion dependable mail,” websites, podcasts, songs, and more. For populations that are isolated, letters are almost a bridge to humanity, reminding them that they are human—something easily lost in the prison system and in hospitals, where each patient is defined by their illness. I hope that you all will take a few minutes out of your day to read Vicario’s entry in its entirety, which emphasizes just how important it is for initiatives like Prisoner Express to provide an outlet. And if you’re compelled to, you can respond to some of the statements he poses in his entry or something you find in another.