- Associated Press - Saturday, December 31, 2016

EAST STROUDSBURG, Pa. (AP) - Conversation can change lives. That’s something Marshalls Creek resident Barbara Widmark has learned. For over 30 years, she’s written to inmates at prisons around the country - and she doesn’t plan on stopping.

“Whoever I got with had better come along with the program,” said Widmark. “I’ve worked full time, been a single mother and married twice since I started this. Writing these has been what turned into a lifesaver for me - I will not give it up.”

When Widmark walks into her local post office, they know to get her stamps ready. That’s due in part to the dozens of letters Widmark receives each month. She’s written to inmates - male and female - at facilities in California, Nevada, Louisiana, Illinois, New York and elsewhere. Some of the correspondences span decades.

“I have to keep a book of notations,” said Widmark. “Keeping track of all these conversations has become like mission impossible. Before the New Year, I’ll probably be starting a new book.’”

Widmark began writing the letters in the 1980s, when she lived in southern Illinois. She had left her job in health care to start a family with then-husband Cecile Young.

“I was an operating room nurse,” said Widmark. “When the doctor said, ‘scalpel,’ I was the one who handed it to them.”

When she and Young separated around 1983, Widmark retained custody of their two children. As a single mother, she struggled to make ends meet.

“I didn’t go back to nursing,” said Widmark. “It’s not that I didn’t want to - my heart is still in the O. R. - but I can’t take my children to the hospital. I was on call seven days a week. You can’t find a baby-sitter at two in the morning when you get a gunshot wound or major accident.”

Widmark had been introduced to the trucking industry by her ex-husband. She started her own company as a freight broker. The job helped her pay the bills, but not without frustrations.

“I was encapsulated in taking care of my children,” she said. “I had responsibilities thrown at me. Your kids don’t eat if momma isn’t working.”

Widmark missed the luxury of having an empathetic listener, she said. Her children were too young to understand why their mother cried about being able to pay the electric bills. She needed an adult with whom she could share a conversation.

“It wasn’t that I just woke up one morning and decide to be nice,” said Widmark. “I had to keep my head, to maintain my wits.”

“Baby talk can only go for so long,” she said. “You’re living every day saying, ‘Are we going to get up and have a good day today, girls?’ I was afraid that if I went out with a date, I might lean over and start cutting up his food for him.”

The idea to write to inmates came from an unexpected source. Widmark found a motorcycle magazine that a houseguest had left at her home. In the back pages- a section that listed prisoners looking for someone to write.

Widmark sent her first letter to an inmate in California, where the magazine was published. She wrote it just to see if someone would respond. They did.

Widmark kept writing. Soon she started to get letters from other prisoners, ones to whom she hadn’t written. She believes many learned of her by word of mouth.

“I still don’t know how some of them got my address,” said Widmark. “Maybe they won it in a game of poker, or got it from a cellmate.”

“An address is like gold,” she said. “If you owe somebody money in prison, you need a plan. If you have someone who will listen to you, then you’ve got something to trade.”

Some inmates did disclose how they got her address. One prisoner had discovered it by mistake.

“One of the men had just been transferred,” said Widmark. “In his cell, there was crack between the cinder blocks where someone had stuffed a piece of paper inside. It took him three days to dig it out, and on it was written my address.”

In another instance, an inmate passed Widmark’s address to another prisoner he thought she might help.

“He was getting transferred to another prison,” said Widmark. “In the van, there was another handcuffed prisoner he could tell was very angry.”

Widmark identified the angry inmate as Morrison. He had been incarcerated for pouring boiling water on his wife’s lover, she said. The other prisoner gave him her address, hoping she might calm him.

“Morrison was an electrician,” said Widmark. “He’s very intelligent. Because he could also speak Spanish, they asked him to be a teacher’s aide in prison.”

Widmark encouraged him to take the position. Morrison began to mellow and succeeded in his role, she said.

“He told me that he would love to be a teacher,” said Widmark. “He wasn’t feeling as hurtful because he was giving back. He knew he had something to give his guys, so the pity party had to stop.”

Widmark has kept touch with some inmates for decades, even after relocations. Others have lost contact for one reason or another.

“No one ever contacted me after they got out,” said Widmark “Sometimes I just stop hearing back. You don’t know what happens; maybe they were transferred or maybe they were killed.”

Many of the prisoners who write to Widmark will likely die before their sentences end, she said. One inmate in Chicago expected his day to come sooner than later.

“He was already on death row when we started talking,” said Widmark. “It was quite a few years ago. I can’t honestly tell you his name. What really drew my attention was that it got postponed three times - which I would think is more horrific than the actual execution. Imagine they tell you, ‘This Wednesday, you’re going to die,’ and on Tuesday at about 4 p.m. they decide, ‘Nope, we’re going to postpone it to February.’”

“I remember being at work that day and looking at the clock,” she said. “His was in the daytime. You always see in the movies where it happens a stroke after midnight, but really it happens when they have time for people to be there.”

“I can’t tell you if that man was innocent or guilty,” said Widmark. “They all tell you they’re innocent. We concentrated on when it was going to happen. We talked about what was going to happen and what his wife was going to do after.”

“I didn’t dwell on it a lot - I just felt sorry,” said Widmark. “If I knew I was going to die tomorrow, what would I do? What would I think? I don’t know.”

Widmark said her letters have taught her much. She learned early to start conversations by laying ground rules.

“I tell them up front: I’m not going to marry you,” she said. “I’m not going to visit you. I’m not a sugar momma who’s going to finance you. If that’s what you want, you can throw the letter away.”

“You also never ask them why they are in there,” said Widmark. “They’ll volunteer that on their own.”

Widmark started decades-long conversations with a list of a few names. Someone else could start their own conversations with even less though.

“You don’t even need a name,” said Widmark. “You could just get a group from your church or the community. Everyone just signs a card, and you send them all to the Chaplin of a prison. You don’t need to put your address, you can put the church’s return address.”

“Imagine what that would be like: a big box full of cards just showing up,” she said. “Then they can hand them out to everyone - whether it’s the favored inmates, the angry guys or the man who’s thinking about killing himself. Everyone can get just a little something.”





Information from: Pocono Record, https://www.poconorecord.com/

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