An incarcerated mother explains how the U.S. Postal Service is her lifeline. For those behind bars, the U.S. Postal Service is critical to communicating with the outside world. To get a sense of just how important it is, we spoke with Tami Eldrige and Kevin Hammerschimdt about their experiences while incarcerated and the role that mail plays in the day-to-day of life in prison.
Eldrige is currently incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility in Westchester County, New York, and has been serving her sentence for more than 20 years. She is a mother of two and is in the process of receiving a bachelor’s degree from Marymount Manhattan College-Bedford Hills.
Hammerschimdt is currently a paralegal at the Square One Development Group in St. Louis. While incarcerated, he earned an associate’s degree in political science and government through Washington University in St. Louis’s Prison Education Project. This spring, he will receive his bachelor’s degree from the university while serving as a consultant with the Prison Education Project.
How does mail factor into daily life in prison?
Tami Eldrige: Throughout 19 years of my now 21 years of incarceration, my children’s lives have become tangible with every piece of mail that I have received. We have become emotionally connected through letters, cards, schoolwork, and artistic efforts. We were able to touch, hug, kiss, and cry together through letters. My children invited me into their lives every day through their letters, and I constantly reminded them of my love through mine.
It is difficult for me to give you an exact number of letters that I have sent or received. One letter feels as if it could fill one thousand days.
Kevin Hammerschimdt: Letter mail means a lot to the incarcerated, particularly for personal connections. I also received a lot of correspondence courses — Christian, college, paralegal — some of which are time sensitive. The most important, however, is legal mail, which is integral to one’s ability to move forward in their personal case proceedings.
How do/did you communicate generally with your family, friends, and legal representation?
Eldrige: Although we now have access to email, I still believe in the old school methods of communicating. I still write personal letters, make handmade cards, and use fancy stationery (as my daughter calls it), which I believe is an effective way to show my children that I am still personally vested in writing to them. Also, handwritten letters display emotions such as expressing gratitude or bereavement to people who have impacted my life or my children’s lives during my incarceration.
Are/were other forms of communication — such as email, video, phone — easily accessible in your facility? Do you know if cost or availability limits your peers’ ability to use these technologies?
Eldrige: Inmates such as myself who do not receive any financial support and live off of state wages cannot fully benefit from the services these tablets offer due to the high cost. Without prepaid stamps, purchased for me by my family and friends, I would not be able to email. We can also use the phone with the help of family and friends.
Hammerschimdt: Emails cost 25 cents to send and phone calls are 5 cents a minute. I believe video calls still have not been implemented, and they will be very expensive.
Tami, is there anything else you would like people to know about the role that mail plays in the life of an incarcerated person?
I have already mentioned the emotional impact mail correspondence has had throughout my two decades in prison. However, now as I strive for my freedom, mail correspondence still remains an important factor in my life as well as for other incarcerated individuals. In fact, the most recent letter that I got to include in my “archive file” was delivered by the USPS.
For my freedom, I collect letters from family and friends for the parole board panel to consider. Included in that mail is a letter that I received from my eldest daughter, who is now 26 years old, during the early years of my incarceration, where she asked me questions like: “How long Mommy, will they keep you?” and “Will they let you go soon?
Source: Brennan Center for Justice