"You can't be vulnerable in prison. Vulnerability incites trouble. It invites predators to lurk in your shadow. In prison vulnerability is death, one way or another. That is why I find respite in stories, my writing and letters to you. I can be honest here, safe."
—Aubrey Michael, currently incarcerated in Virginia
Since I was young, writing has been my tool of choice: my expression, my fire, my place of advocacy and change, my home.
I was lucky to grow up with a great public education, in an environment and with teachers that always nourished my desire to write and share my voice. No one ever told me I didn’t have a voice or I wasn’t worthy of sharing what I had to say. In that way, I was blessed. No one made me think I wasn’t powerful.
So when I created the idea for my latest book—I Have Waited for You: Letters from Prison—I asked people inside who were willing to participate to “Share Your Voice.” That was the name of the questionnaire I’d send them, written in bold across the top of the paper, above questions ranging from what they looked like to whether they believe they have a purpose in life to how living in prison makes them feel. I had an inkling that asking them to expose themselves, to express their stories in their own voices, would be a chance for them to feel what I felt: writing as expression, fire, advocacy, change; writing as home.
And that, maybe, it would change some minds. That, if these voices found their way into someone else’s hands and minds—maybe, just maybe—those readers would reimagine how people who have made mistakes and got caught in the grip of the justice system deserve to be treated. Maybe they’d see the humans behind the bars.
Because where I came from, I didn’t know anyone who went to prison. I didn’t meet my first person who was going to prison until I was 22: the dad of a friend I met in hot yoga who committed a white collar crime. And it was a huge stigma, his photo was all over the paper for a couple weeks. I hadn’t known someone in the flesh who went to prison before then. And it was not until a few years later, when I chose to write to people who are incarcerated, did I come across this again. I could have gone my whole life not really knowing.
And so it’s easy—wrong, an injustice, a failure, but easy—for people like me not to know that incarceration is a crisis. That we’re overusing it. That it’s wildly biased against people of color and people with less money. And it’s easy to feel like people in prison are disappeared from us, that we don’t even have to think about their existence or let it interfere with our day: we don’t know them, we don’t drive by their jails which are hidden away from our homes and our neighborhoods. We only hear about “criminals” on the news. This is not a real depiction of who we’re actually sending to jail. Of how it’s affecting their children and their families. All of us, really. Because we’re connected.
Which is why I Have Waited for You: Letters from Prison is not really about prison. A collection of stories composed entirely in the form of letters, this book is about human beings. About connection. About seeing and being seen. This is a book about hope. This is a book about change. This is a book about trust. And, mostly, this book is about love.
Only as the friendships that developed in the course of this book rise to the surface of the page do we realize just how broken the prison system is.
Ashley Asti is the author of three books, including I Have Waited for You: Letters from Prison and The Moon and Her Sisters. She's also the founder of an organic skincare line created to connect us to the beauty of our souls.