How Pen Pal Relationships Are a Lifeline for Those in Prison

For people facing long sentences and even deportation, contact with the outside world is crucial

Atoosa Moinzadeh
LEVEL
Published in
6 min readDec 1, 2020

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Photos: courtesy of Kelly Savage

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On August 31, after 15 years, Patricia Waller was on the brink of being released from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). Instead of tasting freedom, though, she found herself heading hundreds of miles to a Colorado detention facility after California Governor Gavin Newsom handed her over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Waller was born in Belize — a country she has few remaining ties to but will soon be returning to against her will.

Being away from her family, community, and legal team has been “a little stressful, maybe,” Waller tells me over the phone one morning in mid-September, her voice shaking. “I’m trying to figure out where I’m going to go from here, starting over in a country I don’t even remember, with a felony record hanging over my head.”

Newsom’s decision to transfer Waller during a pandemic — something public health officials had advised against for months — has already resulted in Waller contracting Covid-19 inside the Colorado facility. But finally being released from quarantine early this week has been cold comfort for the 55-year-old woman, who could be deported to Belize as soon as this week.

Yet, across the country, dozens of people who have never met Waller have fought for her freedom from ICE custody, mailing her notes of support as they do. Waller considered these letters and postcards critical to remaining focused on her release and preserving a sense of faith beyond her immediate circumstances. “Mail is a big thing, you know,” she says. “When I receive letters, it puts a smile on my face. It reminds me that someone is thinking about me and I haven’t been forgotten.”

As a teenager, Waller became involved in a relationship with a man in San Diego who subjected her to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse spanning more than a decade. The experience “demoralized and degraded” her, Waller says, and she became a drug addict. At the age of 30, Waller made a series of poor decisions to…

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Atoosa Moinzadeh
LEVEL
Writer for

Atoosa Moinzadeh is a music and culture writer based in Brooklyn, NY. // atoosasmoinzadeh.com