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 012: Reminders to Mourn & Celebrate, Part 2: FOR DARIN 

Earlier this year, you may have received a RAMBLIN WITH VEE! newsletter about my first prison penpal, Chris. Shortly thereafter, I began writing this dedication to my other penpal, Darin, who I corresponded with from 2008 to 2018.

Most of my newsletters are very easy for me to write. This one was not one of them. And the reason it was not easy is because I believe Darin is dead, and because the prison system is so flawed, it has not given me the proper opportunity to mourn -- or to even fully discover the truth.

Today is my birthday, and as I contemplate what it means to turn 37 and live a life of privilege and access, I must use it to shine a light on a population we don't consider enough.

December 21st is also the Winter Solstice, which was one of the few holidays Darin celebrated. Ironically, his last PHYSICAL letter which was mailed to me -- before we moved to online correspondences, which are now FOREVER LOST (details later) -- was coincidentally very much centered around the Winter Solstice in 2017.

The Solstice meant something to him, and on this day of planetary alignment and astrological significance, I send him a spiritual shout-out, wherever he might be.

"And Harm Ye None.
Do What You Will."


( 1961 - 2018? )

From his Facebook page.
Yes, he did have a Facebook.
I never did add him.
On Darin's best days, he always opens his letters with a similar greeting.

"How are things going for you?" he writes on August 13, 2008. "I hope that you are good and everything is all right. I'm good. I guess that every day is a good day that I wake up. I know that sounds kind of crazy being in prison, but I really have alot to be thankful for. It could be a lot worse."

In the first few months of our correspondences, I go by a code name of "V" and use my PO Box rather than my real address, because I am uncertain about the safety of writing someone in prison. When I finally tell Darin my name is "Vee," he assumes I am a man and wonders if I'm gay, though he reassures me that he doesn't mind because he's had close gay friends. He's just curious -- and am I Asian? Because my stationary is so flamboyant?

It still takes me months more before I tell him that my name is Vivian. Partly because he accidentally sees it, and because he reminds me that his release date is on January 13, 2059.

At his ripe old age of 43, "I don't think that I'll make that," Darin explains. "Open up a little bit. Take off your shoes and relax and stay awhile. Know what I mean?"

And eventually, I do.


From 2008 to 2019, I travel and move around frequently. I write Darin erratically, sending him all sorts of pictures and postcards from my travels. Often they get rejected and sent back -- but everything he receives he holds onto as prized possessions, even when he is transferred to different prisons. He never fails to remind me how much he looks forward to my mail, because they always make him smile or laugh, and he never knows what to expect.... in a good way.

I, on the other hand, was 25-years-old, living my best life. And while I feel at the time that I am generous in writing him -- the reality I now shamefully recognize is that writing him, for me, was an important afterthought, whereas for him, it became one of the most important and long-lasting connections he would have in the later part of his life.


Below are some snippets from our ten years of correspondence with one another. All words in italics are from Darin's POV.

Early on, Darin remembers important details about me. He does things like send me birthday and holiday cards, which I later discover cost quite a pretty penny because they're hand-drawn by other incarcerated individuals who craft their own hustles for the prison economy. The Tweety card was made by his cellmate at the time. December 2008.
"I got transferred. It wasn't by my choice. It's a lower security level institution. It's got a lot of good things but bad, too. They've got a band room. Maybe I'll get to play some."


JULY 2009
"F*CKING WOW!!! These pictures are great. My mouth dropped open. You are so fortunate to have gotten to experience those places. That picture of Machu Picchu is unreal. The vantage point you had when you took that was great. If there were ever one place that I would want to go to in the world it would be Machu Picchu. They say that it's one of the few places on the planet where there are natural vortices of energy. The other rock formation was also beautiful. Thanks so much for the pictures."

"I still work in the tailor shop. I usually make from 50-60 dollars a month. That's my income. Sometimes I have to do without but things always work out one way or another. I've been trying to get more hours but we just haven't had the work. I make sixty-five cents an hour."

"You're my penpal and I've been writing you forever. I can't put any expectations or limits on you of how and when you're going to write. I understand that you've got a life. I'm just lucky to have you as a penpal and whenever you write is fine with me. There's alot going on out there in the world and I understand that at times there's just not enough hours in the day to get everything done that you would like to. I'm just really thankful that you write when you do. Thanks again for being a penpal (friend)."

"It's very interesting that we're pen pals and on the same kind of path. Do you think that our paths crossing was just random or it was meant to be for a reason? I believe that people come in and out of our lives for what ever reason it may be. No matter how long or how short their time is in our lives there's something to learn from them. Whatever positive or negative. You've definitely made my life better by being a friend and teaching me that among all the chaos that's in the world that there's still good people out there. Your letters have sparked some interesting topics for me to ponder."


"I packed up Monday and transferred Tuesday. I went form a medium security prison to a maximum. I lost just about everything that I had worked hard to get. My single cell, job, Levis, Timberlands, denim shirts, CD's, CD player and alot more little things I don't know how I ended up here. This place is messed up. It's mostly gang members and trouble makers. I know that I've got to get off here as soon as possible. This isn't for me."

"This is the story on why I got transferred. When I went to Augusta it was a security level 3/4. I had level 4 points. Been there three years and it hasn't been a problem. Just recently the changed it to a straight level 3. They had to move all the level 4's off of it. It was alot of level 4's there. They started moving us all and they just stuck us wherever they had room. I got stuck at a level 5 max. It sucks!!! I go up for an annual review in October and my level will drop to a level 3. Hopefully I can go back to Augusta but the damage has already been done. I lost well over five hundred dollars in property and that kind of money isn't easy to come by in here."

"They took my CD's and CD player when I came here. They're getting ready to start celling MP3 players. I wish that it would be soon. I don't really have the money but I've got a birthday coming up and I'm hoping I can talk my mom into sending me the money for one. They say song are going to be a dollar or dollar fifty. I just want some music. It sucks not having anything to listen to when music has been such a big part of my life. I'm not a big TV person anyway. My TV stays off until the news comes on in the evening."

MARCH 2013
"I finally got my MP3 player. It's not called an MP3 player though It's called a JP4. It was manufactured for the company J-Pay which offers all kinds of services to inmates. They have a website that you can go to and check out the player. I guess that you would just type in J-Pay to your computer. We have to download from their site. They have all kinds of music. You can give me some bands or performers names and I can see if they are on there."

JULY 2013
"I got a letter from you the other day with some pictures in it. I appreciate both. I'm just glad that you still take the time and effort to write and let me into your life. You've hung in there with me for a long time. You've been writing longer than anyone else. Most of my penpals have just faded away but not you. I really appreciate your friendship and letters...

"We're currently on lockdown. One of the maintenance men lost a pair of scissors. They can't find them. They've already shook us down once and say that they're coming back. They sad this is going to go on until they find them or someone gives them up. I guess that we'll be down for awhile."

"What if someone doesn't have a job or financial support? You have to find some kind of hustle. Drawing pictures, cards, gambling, drugs, or whatever it may be. Some guys are just lazy and are bums. Then you have some people that prey on the weak and rob and extort them. There's not really any good jobs here like there was at Augusta."

"You asked if I communicate with my mom. I write her three or four times a week and call at least once a week. I love my mom!"

A hand-drawn card which took Darin a long time to make. When I somehow don't comment on it in my return letter (how rude of me), he asks me what I think of it and assures me that the fact that it was placed in a heart means nothing; he only meant to show me his tattoo art-inspired style. April 2009.

"I finally got transferred. I really feel blessed. They move me Tuesday the nineteenth. I'm back in the mountains only an hour and a half from home. This prison is brand new. They're just opening it. Right now there's only three hundred and seven people here. The food is really good and we've been getting plenty of rec. The only thing that I don't really like about it is the cells are kind of small and there aren't any windows in them. I was just so glad to get away from where I was at. Any place had to be better than that. It couldn't have been any worse."

"I got a rejection notice last night for a letter that you sent. They said it was rejected because it had tape on it. This mailroom is out of control on being petty about rejecting stuff. I went to the postmaster on them because they were stealing sections of my newspaper that I subscribe to. I don't think that they liked it so now they're retaliating against me. I had my mom send me a picture of Sponge Bob and they rejected that letter, too. I'm sorry. Just please put the letter in another envelope and send it back."

"I've moved. I left River North on November 19th. I was glad to get away from there but I have my reservations about where I'm at. This place is a level 2/3. I still can't figure out how I ended up here. I have alot more freedom. No bandroom here though. They do have a dog rescue program here they take rescued dogs and try to get them more suitable for adoption. They also have an honor pad. They food here is great to be prison cuisine. I hear these guys complain how bad this place is all the time but they're the ones that haven't been anywhere where it's really bad... I almost forgot, you can have your own clothes here, too."


"I was so surprised last night. When they brought the mail around and I saw a letter from you I broke into my little happy dance. I think the C.O. thought I was crazy but that's okay. I was so glad to hear from you. It's kind of strange because you've been on my mind alot lately. I guess that the cosmos was telling me something... it's crazy that my letter found it's way back to you after you lost it. Kind of makes you go hmmm!!! I've told you before that if you don't write I don't. I just don't want to seem like a pest. I figure that things will all work out.

"I'm in school and a therapy group. I stay busy. The vocation that I'm taking is plumbing / pipefitting. That's what I did on the streets. I'm just about finished with the plumbing half. My grades are great. There's alot of welding with the pipefitting. I've welded all my life. I'm really into the class. I'm trying to get a tutor's job when I complete the class. The therapy group is called RET, Rational Emotive Therapy. It tries to get you to change the way that you think. I like it."

"I'm done with RET. I miss it already. I use it every day. I'm a thinker though. I look at both the positive and negative consequences any more instead of just acting and paying for it later. I guess that I'm just getting older. Our group was rather diverse. We had a guy that wanted to kill everything or everybody. A white Supremacist that really gave you a different outlook on things, a black guy who I liked his perspective on alot of things, an Iraq veteran who was blown up in his Humvee and was the only one to survive. His whole face and alot of his body had been reconstructed. He suffered from PTSD severely. I felt really bad for him. He was in here for stealing a car. The thing that came up most was having to deal with these asshole C.O.'s and other inmates."

APRIL 2016
"You asked about me how my liver is doing. It's not good. The treatment that I took didn't work. The Hep C virus came back. It was a big let down but what do you do I try to live each day to get the most out of it. Some time I feel good and sometime I feel bad. Peaks and Valleys."

"I got your letter two weeks ago. I'm sorry that it's taken me so long to right you back but I've been having some serious issues with my liver. I was so glad to hear from you. I thought that probably you had just gotten tired of writing after all these years. I will always answer your letters... the doctor told me that I'm in the beginning stages of liver failure...

"I sure wish that you would go to and register for e-mails. That way my letters to you wouldn't get lost. You can send pictures and all kinds of stuff that way. It would be a lot easier."


"I've been checking the kiosk for e-mails from you but I haven't gotten one. I sent you one when you gave me the stamps, which was short, and then I sent you one around December 20th when they had to take me to the hospital. You have to check them from time to time to see if I've written you...

"I didn't do any rituals on the Solstice. That was the day that they had to take me to the ER because I was bleeding internally. I haven't even meditated or prayed for a month. I need to get it together. I know that Odin and Frigga and the other gods have kept me alive for some reason."
In Druidic traditions, the Winter Solstice is thought of as a time of death and rebirth when Nature’s powers and our own souls are renewed. It marks the moment in time when the Old Sun dies (at dusk on the 21st of December) and when the Sun of the New Year is born (at dawn on the 22nd of December), framing the longest night of the year.

Darin and I wrote snail mail letters for the bulk of our correspondence, but in the last two years of 2017 and 2018, we moved to e-mail. And by "e-mail," I mean an online inbox run by JPay, a third-party software platform that holds prisoners hostage with over-priced schemes.

Whether it be mail or downloadable music, JPay masquerades as a service that gives incarcerated people access to "privilege," when in fact they are predatory practices designed by the rich and powerful to keep other human beings restrained in cages, and bound in shackles–never ceasing, from ancient slave times to modern slave times.

In our last snail mail correspondence in January 2017, Darin asks me for my phone number so he can give me a call. I do believe he tries a few times, but I seem to miss the calls every time because they came as unknown numbers. I only discover that they're him when an automated woman's voice leaves a voicemail that a phone call is coming from a correctional facility. :(

I also consider visiting Darin in Virginia when I take a trip to New York. He jumps through bureaucratic hoops to add me to his guest list of potential visitors. Yet when I am finally on the east coast, it is such a hassle to drive across multiple states with the limited timeframe that I have that I never do end up visiting him.

Sometime in 2017 or 2018, Darin tells me that he most likely is not long for the world. Around mid-2018, I stop hearing from him.

I login to my JPay account sometime afterwards, fearing the worst. It is then that I realize that the structure of my inbox is there; I can see how many messages I'd sent and how many I'd received, but three years of our online correspondences are completely gone. Disappeared forever.

As he was nearing his dying days, Darin tried to convince the prison to allow him to go home, so that he could pass away in the company of his 90-year-old mother, with whom he had always been close.

They didn't let him.

He'd also alerted me that his mother had my address, and that she had been tasked with writing me, if he ever were to pass.

I have yet to hear from her.

One night, long after I have assumed that Darin is dead, I stay up late, seeking some sort of closure. I log into my JPay account again -- and this time, I discover an unread mystery message: a "New Incoming Mail" sent five months after what I had previously thought was the last correspondence from Darin.

Evidence of the message is there, but the link is dead.

Was it a goodbye from him? A notice from his mother? Or some pre-fabricated auto-reply from JPay telling me that the inmate I once knew is now deceased?

I will never know what it said.

What I do know is that... in the end, it was just his mother and I. We were the last connections and correspondences in his life. Me: just a stranger, become a friend.

Peace and blessings, friend.



Has any of this changed your thoughts on prisons or incarcerated peoples?


 //  FYI  \\ 

Come to my Winter Solstice Birthday Party on December 21, 2020 -- the evening of The Great Conjunction.


_ 華婷婷

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