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Why I'm Friends With A Murderer, A Burglar And A Man Jailed For 241 Years

Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays were my favourite days in prison.

Those were the days the mail came, after it had filtered through the prison’s screening process – envelopes were checked for things like coded messages, hidden drugs or even items we just weren’t allowed to be posted, like extra stamps or magazines.

Receiving a letter was one of the few ways I could still feel connected with the outside world, and when I was in a world of reading or writing, I briefly left my actual surroundings of senseless violence and drug use.

So after my release, I started contacting prisoners I didn’t know all over the world, hoping to touch their lives in the same way.

Joe is imprisoned in Texas for murder. He’s been in solitary confinement for 16 years, and tells me I’m the first person to ever write to him. He’s never asked me for money, none of my pen pals have, but he does ask me to post him pictures. Anything he can use as a reference for his art.

Joe makes hand-drawn greeting cards. He’d send them to me and I’d sell them at markets alongside my own artwork, transferring him the money if one sold. Or at least he did, until his prison introduced a ban on inmates posting out art. Apparently someone in the system caused a fuss about the fact several inmates were effectively earning money from behind bars.

He still writes to me though, as does Luke in the UK. Well his name is Luke now, but it wasn’t when I started writing to him.

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Luke is at a women’s prison. Over about a year of correspondence he told me he was transgender and was considering transitioning to become a man. It’s been an interesting experience supporting someone through that journey, from the other side of the world, while they’re in jail. He’s now on hormone therapy and has changed his name to Luke by deed poll. He’s serving a sentence for aggravated burglary, and expects to be released on parole within a couple years.

Since leaving prison Damien has been writing to prisoners in Australia and the US. (Image: Supplied)
Bobby Bostic, unfortunately, does not have a release date. Or one he can expect to be still alive for anyway.

Bobby was 16 years old when he and an adult friend committed back-to-back armed robberies in Missouri. Bobby shot at one man when he refused to give over his money and the bullet grazed him, but no one was seriously hurt. That was 1995.

Bobby’s adult co-offender was offered a plea deal and accepted 30 years in prison. Bobby rejected a plea deal and chose to go to trial. He was given 241 years. For crimes he committed as a child, Bobby will never be able to rejoin society as an adult, no matter how much he rehabilitates himself.

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The judge who sentenced him, Evelyn Baker, says that in all her years as a judge and after sentencing thousands of people, Bobby’s sentence is the only one she regrets giving. She’s retired now and cannot alter his penalty, though she’s actively involved in the campaign for his release, as am I.

Among other things I maintain a petition for his release, and an Instagram account which advocates on his behalf. I’m not convinced these efforts will have the prison gates opening for him anytime soon, but I know it makes Bobby feel better to know someone cares enough to help.

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He shares his poetry with me and I share my writing and art with him. We talk about our mutual love of reading. He tells me about his dream of setting up a charity that helps disadvantaged youth. He takes time out of every letter to remind me how he appreciates having someone to write to.

I know exactly how he feels.

You can now ‘email’ prisoners in Australia; your messages typed online are printed and posted by the service. Find out more at iExpress.org.auNote: Victorian inmates are prohibited from participating in pen pal programs. To find a pen pal in the USA, visit writeaprisoner.com.