New Zealand’s prison penpals: ‘I had to look at the good things I see in him’

For the first time since 82-year-old Jan Skilling was a young girl, she has time to spare.

Widowed at 40 and responsible for a nest of kids, grandkids, and now “more great-grandkids than I care to count”, Skilling has spent any spare hour since she can remember looking after everyone but herself. Entonces, en 2017, with retirement from her teaching career looming, she knew it was time for a change.

She took up dog walking around the neighbourhood, weekly tai chi classes on Fridays, and from her window-side nook in her Dunedin flat, started writing letters to some of the country’s most hardened convicts.

“About four hours a week I’ll write to them, trade stories, and be there to talk without judgment,” said Skilling. “I enjoy writing letters. People don’t write letters any more and I’ve got the time.”

For the last four years Skilling has been a member of New Zealand’s Prisoner Correspondence Network (PCN), a platform that connects people in jail with people like Jan on the outside through ink, paper, and email.

Various studies indicate that penpal networks like PCN can prove valuable for prisoner rehabilitation, particularly by minimising feelings of social isolation, and providing distraction from the routine of prison life.

“They can be vulnerable with me, because they know I never, ever criticise, I’ll always find something positive,” said Skilling.

Against the backdrop of surging social activism over the last 18 meses, PCN founder Ti Lamusse saw membership for the organisation balloon from 1,200 people at the beginning of 2020, a más de 5,000 people today. According to Lamusse, this now makes PCN the largest per-capita prison penpal network in the world.

“There were a lot of people who were interested in justice reform who wanted to do something really concrete to improve the lives of people experiencing the hard end of the criminal justice system,” said Lamusse.

Dr Paul Wood has spent years examining how the prison system affects the mentality of inmates, and says giving prisoners the opportunity to have dialogue with someone on the outside can be one of the cheapest, most effective ways for an inmate to build a sense of purpose.

Wood became a doctor in psychology while spending more than a decade behind bars for the killing of his drug dealer when he was 18, and remembers one of the darkest points during his sentence being when he was wondering if all of his hard study was going to be fruitless.

“I thought, am I ever really going to be accepted back into society, or is this long term imprisonment such a stigma against me that there’s no point trying to change?"

It was his experience helping a nun at the prison respond to children’s Christmas cards for Santa that helped him build the determination to pull himself out of that period.

“That was a big driver for me to actually develop some confidence and some optimism that I would be able to be accepted by other members of society and that actually I would be able to be seen and valued as a person rather than judged based on my previous mis-deeds,” said Dr Wood.

The rehabilitative qualities of initiatives like the Prisoner Correspondence Network stand in stark contrast to the state of New Zealand’s prison system itself, which has been under intense scrutiny over the past year.

This past week, upon visiting at least two prisons around New Zealand, chief ombudsman Peter Boshier spoke of prison conditions as “undignified and barren.” He also noted that very little progress had been made since the release of last year’s report, which identified a slew of problems, including inmates eating next to uncovered toilets, y structural violence.

One of the key things that allows these issues to go unchecked, said Lamusse, is the lack of connection between prisoners and regular members of the public. He believes that one of the greatest impacts of PCN has been in reminding people that prisoners are indeed people, también.

“It really encourages people on the outside to confront the humanity of people in prison and to really understand what their stories are, to understand that people who have done bad things are also people who are deserving of respect and compassion and rights.”

The value isn’t lost on Skilling, who had never spent time talking to either a trans person or a prisoner before joining PCN.

The great-grandmother is now learning plenty about both through her friend Sharon, a transwoman, who keeps her on her toes with their weekly exchanges.

“She challenges me all the time, it’s absolutely hilarious, and I appreciate her so much,” said Skilling. “She’s an absolute rogue. Some of the things she writes to me, I know she’s imagining me opening the letter laughing.”

There are many pen pal systems around the world actively looking to facilitate romance between jail birds and love birds; PCN, on the other hand, makes their ground rules clear.

“It’s not a dating service. We do have to remind some people of that sometimes,” Lamusse said.

Prisoners include a short synopsis of the things they like to do in their spare time, passions, and dreams, which is emailed across the civilian side of the network who can choose the people they want to write to and build a friendship with.

Lamusse maintains that this additional check is enough to keep letters strictly platonic, and far safer.

“By using our PCN as a middleman, people on the inside and on the outside only reveal as much about themselves as they’re willing to do,” said Lamusse.

They are also privy to corrections policies which ban curse words and sexual references, a rule that Jan Skilling inadvertently violated when chatting to “her lifer,” a fellow literary fan.

“My letter bounced back in the mail and I was scratching my head wondering why, and I realised it was because we were talking about the author, Dick Francis. So I sent an updated version saying ‘the author that writes crime books about horse racing’,” said Skilling.

Neither corrections nor the PCN do put rules in, sin emabargo, around the disclosure of crimes committed. Although some of the prisoner’s introductions will voluntarily include some of this information, PCN takes the view that the decision is for the prisoner to make.

This led to a burdensome ethical situation for the longtime teacher, who had been speaking to one of her penpals for a year and a half before learning what he had done to go to jail.

Although she knew he had raped someone, it didn’t prepare her for the gravity of what had actually happened. “It was one of his own daughters. And it had taken a long time for him to tell me that as well,” said Skilling.

Even recalling the memory clearly takes its toll on Skilling.

“It was really, really difficult,” said Skilling with a long pause. “I had to look at the good things I see in him, the good things I’ve learned about him.”

Skilling still talks to him today, and like the PCN, rejects the premise that there should be mandatory disclosure. “He is serving his time, which society has said he has to do, so does that mean he’s not entitled to have support?"

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