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Prison proves no bar to friendship

Reporter: Paul McIntyre


Not as it looks: Jason had to speak to Paul from behind armoured glass and a wire grille

Visiting an inmate of a Texas jail sounds like an offbeat way to spend long service leave, but not to ABC producer Paul McIntyre. He finally met Jason, a young prisoner with whom he'd struck up a friendship via correspondence.

Here's Paul's story.

There's a famous quote about the roads we travel in life.

So famous in fact, that I've completely forgotten it, but I do remember that it ends by stating I will take the road less travelled.

I guess it was the road less travelled that I started out on, when I began writing to my friend Jason who resides in a Texas prison but let me tell you this, while you may not see many people passing by on this road, it is a path full of self-discovery and the essence of humanity - understanding and forgiveness.

It's probably true to say I never expected Jason to become one of my best mates but it wasn't long after we started writing that I realised here was a person, a kind, generous and incredibly loyal individual, who simply did the wrong thing as a teenager. It's not my place to discuss the details of Jasons case other than to say the life sentence he received does not seem appropriate given the circumstances of his case. Were he in a state other than Texas, he may well be released by now.

Don't get me wrong, Jason is no angel and he'd be the first to tell you the very same, but he is remarkable in more ways than I can describe.

It was because of our close friendship that last year I decided to visit him in Texas on part of my long service leave world tour.

The trip itself took a lot of planning - you can't just turn up at a prison and expect to be let in...

To start with you have to be on a list of approved visitors, that list can only change once every 6 months. You also have to have a place to stay, which when you don't drive (I don't drive) makes a journey to the middle of nowhere a complicated experience. Fortunately Jason put me on to a Christian hospitality centre whose sole purpose is to provide accommodation for the friends and family of those incarcerated.

This meant getting a Greyhound bus (an experience in itself) from Dallas to Palestine. As chance would have it, the young bloke I sat next to on the bus had only just been released from prison and so we got talking about my trip and about his background.

His story wasn't all that different to thousands of others - a fall from grace due in the most part to drugs which led to him committing a robbery to pay for his addiction. He was now a member of Alcoholics Anonymous and trying to sort out his life. He was on his way to visit his grandfather who was dying of cancer - I wished him the best and continued on my journey.

I arrived in Palestine a day early and found myself in a small hotel across the road from a taxidermy store whose motto read Bring Us Your Dead.

The following morning, the manager of the Hospitality Centre collected me. She introduced me to Chris, the maintenance bloke, who kindly took me under his wing and was the perfect host. He and his wife Leah had three young boys and a little girl. I taught the boys how to play cricket and Aussie Rules - I showed them some Australian coins and assured them that yes, we do have roads in Australian and yes, even the internet.

The following morning, Chris drove me to the prison. I had a pocket full of quarters (the only money allowed into the unit) in order to purchase a couple of pictures of Jason and I so that we could both have a tangible memento of the visit.

The actual experience of entering the prison was not as stressful as I had expected. Being from Australia, I was a bit of a novelty and as the guard showed me to the visitors area, she apologised for the overcrowding; she regretted that there wasn't somewhere private where Jason and I could chat, seeing as I'd come so far, but rules were rules.

The first thing I recall about meeting Jason was that he wasn't as tall as I'd expected. What he lacked in height, however, he made up for in warmth and enthusiasm. He introduced me to the guard as one of his best mates and for the next four hours we both talked liked men possessed, heavily conscious of our time limitation.

Jason apologised for his pallid complexion, explaining that due to prison policy, he was unable to spend much time in the sun.

Throughout our four hours together, we were separated by glass and forced to talk through a wire grill. We had applied for a contact visit, but because I wasn't a relative the request had been denied.

In too short a time, the first visit was over. I said my farewells and we made a time for my visit the following day.

I'll confess that it was a very sleepless Saturday night I spent at the Christian hospitality centre.

Here was Jason - a person who had never asked for anything of me other than my friendship and it filled me with both despair and frustration that he may well spend the rest of his life in prison. He is the model inmate, he takes educational courses and does everything he can to quench his thirst for knowledge but in Texas the inmates are used as a free workforce thus making parole an almost impossible dream.

Jason was only 17 when he committed his crime and while not defending or justifying his actions at the time, I know him to be a good person who did a bad thing.

When I arrived on the Sunday, I found that like myself, Jason had undergone a sleepless night as well. We were both thinking about our last day together. Our visit had been planned for so long it seemed unbelievable that the time had disappeared so quickly. We were able to open up a lot more on the Sunday - we discussed our childhood, our fears and our hopes for the future.

It was with a great amount of sadness that I said goodbye to Jason. While it was difficult for me I know it was even harder for him.

Nowadays, we are back to being regular penfriends.

I feel truly honoured at calling Jason one of my best mates and he has made my life all the richer. He has taught me about true friendship and humanity, he has taught me that the people we lock away in prison are not the monsters we so often portray them to be. They are individuals with their own stories who, for the most part, deserve understanding and a second chance.


Paul's currently the producer of the Afternoons show in Hobart


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