How do you break bad news to a prisoner by letter?
October 6, 2014 3:37 PM   Subscribe

This was my AskMe about writing a friend in prison. I wrote him, and he was glad to get my letter. Yay! So what's the problem? He never stops asking me to do stuff for him and he is quickly reaching the limits of my good will. It's getting to the point where I want to either stop corresponding with him or write him and say "Stop sweating me for favors."

I wrote my best friend in prison with the intent to correspond with him, occasionally send him money, maybe occasionally send him care packages of food, and send him some books and magazines. His requests for favors have escalated and they have reached a point where I don't want to do some and I can't do some. For example, I don't want to be a go-between him and his family. Another example is his bank won't accept the Power of Attorney he wanted me to have for him and I don't know what to do about it. I can't continue to be on the phone for hours at work dealing with his shit, and I can't afford a lawyer to help me deal with his problems.

I feel bad because he's my best friend, and he says that I'm the only one he can trust (his family had him arrested and now have a lifetime Protection From Abuse order on him). He's also in protective custody, and likely will remain there for the duration of his sentence, and that limits his access to any inside resources that might help him, and that makes me feel even worse.

I'm glad to write letters to him and send him some money when I can, but I don't have an infinite source of time and money to sink into support of my best friend. I definitely can't be his POA. I've been drafting my next letter to him and I'm trying to come up with how to tell him this. I'm looking for advice on how to tell him all this.
posted by anonymous to Society & Culture (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think I'd just tell him what I WAS up for doing, and, "sorry, Dude, I'm tapped out, otherwise. I love you but I'm damned if I'm losing my job for you! I'll let you know if that changes but right now all this stuff is stressing me out and straining my resources big time."

He can interact with his family himself, via letters. Why the hell is he asking you to interact with them when they've taken out a Lifetime Protection of Abuse order against him?! (I assume that's like a restraining order.)

When you have a ton of time on your hands, these things don't feel like such big favors as they actually are.

Most of his problems sound like they're chickens coming home to roost, and nothing you need to do anything about. If he wants to stay friends with you despite not being able to use you, great. If not? It's his loss.

If you're having a hard time with this, check out some readings on different levels of boundaries. (I go to Al-anon meetings for help with this. They aren't everyone's cup of tea but they've been awesome for me.) They'll help you figure out what's in your hula hoop (aka Actually Your Problem) and what isn't. Whatever you do, don't take your guidance from Best Friend, even if he guilts you with "but you're the only one who can saaaave me!" That's bullshit and he's manipulating you (even if it's unconsciously, to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
posted by small_ruminant at 4:04 PM on October 6, 2014 [7 favorites]

There's got to be some kind of group out there that can help prisoners in protective custody. I'd try to find one, send him the info, and tell him I can't do more than send occasional letters, books and money from now on.
posted by nooneyouknow at 4:10 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Write him a letter and tell him:

Dear Dude,

While I get that it's a drag to be in jail, and I wish I had infinite time and energy to help you out, I just can't. What I can do is Foo, Bah and Blah. As for intervening with your family, I'm going to abide by the court order and leave them alone, I suggest you do the same.

Keep it real Bro.

Sounds like kind of a bad scene, and the good news is that you can engage as much or as little as you like. I had a friend doing Federal Time, and when it got old for me, I stopped accepting the collect calls.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 4:12 PM on October 6, 2014 [13 favorites]

I think that you'll just have to essentially blurt it all out. Tell him that you want to stay in touch with him, but that you can't be a dedicated agent for him on the outside. Tell him that his list of things to do is very time consuming and that you can't spend hours while you're at work handling his arrangements. His judgement about how to manage this also seems somewhat distorted. If his family has a Lifetime Protection From Abuse order on him, in no way is it appropriate for him to use you as a vehicle to communicate with them.

He doesn't have a lot of options now, but that doesn't obligate you to become his life manager while he's in prison. He'll have to figure out how to do some of this himself or live with the consequences. So far, it's probably been easier for him to just load all of this onto your shoulders instead of investigate how to do it himself. I'm sure he's somewhat desperate, but I'm a bit shocked that he feels so entitled to ask you for so much. Friends who are still willing to write to you and send you occasional treats while you're doing a long prison sentence are not a dime a dozen. Don't waffle, be very clear.
posted by quince at 4:17 PM on October 6, 2014 [17 favorites]

Acting as a go-between for a prisoner and a third party may be in violation of prison policy. If he is using you to violate the law, you may in fact become an accomplice to whatever malfeasance he's into. It may be that he's in violation of some regulation while you aren't guilty of anything that's actionable, but that's not the point. The ins and outs of dealing with a prisoner are tricky. You may find it useful to write a letter to the prison officials, requesting guidelines.

You don't have to shut him down completely, but if he's using you to help him commit a crime, then you might re-evaluate your relationship. He has lots of time to figure out nuanced approaches. Please don't underestimate the power of desperation: He's not looking out for your best interests, so please take that into account. In any case, don't try to do any legal work for him--that's for his lawyer to deal with. Anything you do in that area needs to be cleared through his lawyer. Don't take any second-hand advice from your friend about this.

As you say, this is a lot to deal with. In some ways I sympathize with your friend to the extent that being incarcerated is a stone bummer. He's not free to do as he pleases. It's more than a little possible that he's been locked up for a valid reason, but even if he hasn't, you are not equipped to handle these details. You may legitimately feel terrible for the circumstances he finds himself in, but please remind yourself that you didn't contribute to them.
posted by mule98J at 4:59 PM on October 6, 2014 [11 favorites]

On preview - mule98J is absolutely correct. I'd be worried about the fact your friend could be potentially asking you to help him violate the PFA order depending on how it was written. Just by violating the order he could be opening himself up to civil or criminal charges ranging from community service up to multiple-year sentences on top of whatever it was that got him in prison in the first place depending on the state.

He's not a friend if he's getting you to help him break the PFA.
posted by winna at 5:04 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Well, I think you came very close to the perfect thing to say in your closing of this Ask, so let me edit it slightly:
I'm glad to write letters to him you and send him you some money when I can, but I don't have an infinite source of time and money to sink into support of my best friend. I definitely can't be his your POA because the bank didn't accept the POA.
One thing that might help you with this situation is to lower your expectation that you need to respond to everything. I would start viewing a lot of his behavior as a form of venting. He is railing against the situation he is in because, guilty or not, it sucks. I mean, prison is intended as punishment. It isn't intended to be happy, fun times. So, rather unsurprisingly, it isn't happy, fun times.

Give as much as you are comfortable giving. Tell him from time to time that you simply can't do more, this is it, and he needs to accept it. If you stick to your guns and occasionally reiterate what are reasonable expectations and what aren't, he will probably calm down at some point and accept it. If he tries to pressure you, I would try to nicely let him know that it is in his best interest to take what he can get so it doesn't disappear. I wouldn't do that to threaten him. I would do it to try to help him come to grips with what is realistic. (I am not saying you need to do that. I am telling you how I would do things.)

Also, it might help you to think of it this way: He has been told much worse things already. You saying "hey, bud, this is all I can give" is hardly the worst news he has survived hearing. So just say it, let it be what it will be.
posted by Michele in California at 6:04 PM on October 6, 2014 [6 favorites]

Um....I think you might be better off just not writing to him any more and ignoring his letters. If his parents have a protection of abuse order on him, there had to have been a good reason for that--and it sounds like he's the kind of guy who uh, doesn't relent when he wants attention. I don't think you should be his POA (and I think it's great the bank said no), and if his family doesn't want to hear from him, you should not be harassing them for him as his proxy. He may have been your bestie once upon a time, but... I don't think he sounds like he's a great friend for you now. You are kind of there for him to use at this point, and you're hitting your limit as to how much you want to be used.
posted by jenfullmoon at 6:04 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your friend is in prison. He's bored, and has a lot of time on his hands. Write less letters, and send longer books.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:25 PM on October 6, 2014 [22 favorites]

This sounds like he's can't PERSONALLY do whatever landed him in jail, so he wants to use you as a tool to.

Walk. If you think back, odds are, I bet you'll realize he's used you before.
posted by stormyteal at 7:06 PM on October 6, 2014 [3 favorites]

You can't live his outside life for him.
posted by rhizome at 8:25 PM on October 6, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've spent a fair bit of time interacting with prisoners. The overarching theme of their lives is boredom. Never-ending, monotonous boredom. They get up at the same time every day, stare at the same 4 walls everyday, interact with the same small group of people everyday, go to the yard and do the same thing everyday. They get excited about ANYTHING that cures that boredom. Being new to prison makes it even worse, because they aren't used to how it works yet. He has way too much time on his hands and is writing you to relieve the stress.

Your friend is going to be down for a long, long time, and prisoners end up relying on outsiders for just about everything meaningful in their lives. You should sit down and have a think about what you need to continue to be able to communicate with him in the long term and set some boundaries.

"Friend, you're important to me, and I'm feeling like you're asking me for more than I can give you right now. I am going to write you letters [x] times a month and set aside [y] amount of money for any books you might like me to send you. It will not be possible for me to do [foo, baz, and bar], and I am struggling to get the power of attorney enacted (I will continue to work on it, but I need to take more time - all the phone calls are getting me in trouble at work). I love you and know that you understand where I am coming from - I want to make sure we are able to stay in touch for the long haul. With that in mind, I'll be ignoring any requests from you that are outside of what I can do. Feel free to write me as often as you wish. Love you and talk to you soon. Anonymous."

He may not be thrilled about it, but I can guarantee you that some outside contact is going to be way preferred than no outside contact.
posted by zug at 8:34 PM on October 6, 2014 [11 favorites]

I'm worried about you.

I did some googling on Lifetime Protection of Abuse.

Your friend is not who he seems. You need to get away from him. Full stop.

I'm worried for you.
posted by jbenben at 12:08 AM on October 7, 2014 [9 favorites]

I'm struck by your description "best friend." Have you know him all your life? Has he been very very good to you? Did he save you from drowning or something similar? Why and how does he remain your "best friend"? Do you share your life with him in your letters, and does he respond in a caring and responsive way? There seems to be too big a piece of the puzzle missing for us to make any meaningful comments.

Also, this is only a small point in a very big problem, but several people have mentioned sending books into prison. You CANNOT do this yourself. Every prison in the country, to the best of my knowledge, only allows prisoners to receive books from pre-approved bookstores or publishers. You can order from Amazon and have a book sent to him. You can contact a books to prisoners program, and ask them if they will send books for you (this depends somewhat on what prison you are sending books into). You can check with his prison mailroom and ask what stores/publishers are pre-approved, and what their guidelines are (paperback only? new books only? limit of 3?)
posted by kestralwing at 1:10 AM on October 7, 2014 [3 favorites]

Your friend is in prison for 10-25 years (per your linked question) and has already worn out a "best friend" in six months. I'd write something along the lines of what Ruthless Bunny said above. Don't make excuses that leave room for him to start negotiating (job is busy right now, I'm not comfortable with something, etc.). Just say "I will do x,y,z and nothing else". Certainly give up trying to get POA because then he'll want you to do a lot more.

If he reacts well then great. If not, just send a final letter saying "As stated before, I will do x,y,z and nothing else. If you are ever down with that plan let me know". Ignore anything after that until he comes around (if ever). Chances are he'd rather have someone to correspond with for ten years even if you won't be his proxy on the outside. If he keeps ignoring your preferences and demands you do things then that doesn't sound very friendly.

One of the things you should definitely not do is be a go-between to the family. If they have a PFA on him, the idea is he has no contact with them. You could very well be transmitting messages that seem innocuous to you but are triggering for the family.
posted by mikepop at 6:36 AM on October 7, 2014 [5 favorites]

I'm missing the 'what for' and 'how long' in my reading here; is he in for a long time, violent crime, matter of months, stealing a car, assault; ... some details would make all the difference in any scenario.
Abruptly cutting off contact could really damage a prisoner's mind; even if he's nuts 100%; I'd do a slow back off more than a total disappear; less of a mental scar so to speak.
But yeah, if his incarceration is harming your life; then you have to start the slow back away from the whole situation; seems akin to trying to help a person that is drowning; if they will let you, ok. If they won't, and they are going to cling fight grab kick and bring you down with them, no helping their.
posted by buzzman at 6:47 AM on October 7, 2014

kestralwing, that's not true in California so far as I know. Friends can send books. It will take forever for them to get through, is all.
posted by small_ruminant at 8:31 AM on October 7, 2014

The books will depend on the facility. I had a friend doing reduced time in Theo Lacy (Orange County, CA) because of the state prison overcrowding situation, and they would only allow paperbacks from a large third-party like Amazon or Walmart.

Thankfully, my friend was released as he reached the limit of what I was willing and able to do for him. But before his release, I sent him a letter in which I stated very openly and clearly that I would not be able to help him further on the outside. I kept that part of my letter quite short but directly to the point, and then went into the usual crap the I would write about.

You are doing him a great kindness by writing and helping where you can, but he is placing all of that in jeopardy through his increased requests, and you need to take care of yourself first and foremost. Let him know exactly where you stand, and be prepared to disengage if necessary.
posted by malocchio at 9:20 AM on October 7, 2014 [4 favorites]

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