My Mom’s Prison Pen Pal

In the mid-1970s, my mom started a pen-pal relationship with a prisoner at the Marion Correctional Institution in Ohio. This is their story.

This prisoner was a man we’ll call T.R., an inmate at MCI from November 22, 1974, to May 24, 1976. During his time there, he and my mom, Mary Murphy, exchanged about eight to 10 letters.

Mary Murphy in 1975 and T.R., time unknown.

So how did she even get into this? She was 15 or 16 years old — why was she writing a man in prison? A man who was possibly nine or 10 years her elder.

“Why wouldn’t you write to someone who’s incarcerated?” Mary said. “Because they’ve got to be really lonely.

“I think it was one of those socially responsible things to do. You boycott grapes for the farm workers, you correspond with pen pals in prison — that kind of stuff.”

They wrote to each other about books, their shared enjoyment of reading, and his life. But never about what he was in for — that wasn’t allowed. Mary said that’s about all she can remember of the letters. She said her memory of that time was not great, and it seems that T.R. died, so the details of what was in those letters may be lost.

But Mary’s memories along with the facts I discovered leave us with a pretty good gem of a story.

At one point, T.R. asked that Mary send him a photograph of herself, to which she obliged.

“Of course I sent a picture,” she said. “Oh, yeah. I was so naive.”

Another time, Mary’s home phone rang and she was the one to answer — it was a collect call from an inmate at MCI. She immediately hung up, not accepting the collect call charges and never connecting with the person on the other end. She remembers saying to herself, “Ah! I don’t want to talk to him.”

T.R. continued to get a bit too friendly, but at the time it wasn’t such a big deal to Mary. She thought he was probably just lonely.

“But it did make me think, ‘This is more than what I thought,’” she said. “It became a little too close for comfort.”

Finally, Mary’s mother intercepted one of T.R.’s letters — one that quoted Song of Songs, an R-rated love story from the Bible. Mary’s mom, understandably, said she wanted this correspondence to end.

According to Mary, her mom was saying things like, “Why are you doing this? I didn’t know this. I want to read all these letters and I want to read them before you send them.”

Mary was outraged. She said it wasn’t her mom’s business.

“I thought I was totally mature enough to write to who I wanted to write,” she said.

But eventually, the back-and-forth writing began to get spotty.

“I realized that I really didn’t want to talk to him,” Mary said. “And I was embarrassed that I had rejected the call.

“Things kind of petered out after that.”

But she said she’s now glad that her mom found her out, glad that it all crumbled.

“I certainly wouldn’t want my daughter corresponding with a prison inmate, or any adult man that I didn’t know,” she said. “Completely unsupervised. That’s just a really bad idea.

“So, yeah, I am glad that she found out.”


Footnotes:

  • Neither MCI nor the Ohio Office of Communications had any info as to the charges brought against T.R. MCI said they have a 10-year retention policy for those types of records.
  • I tried to contact T.R.’s family, but I was unable to.
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