HeroicStories: Ripples of Inspiration

by Randy Cassingham

We received an email on 30 January 2003, from a reader who confirmed my belief that HeroicStories truly matters — and changes lives. You’ll find that remarkable letter below along with my reply to it. Little did we know publishing these two letters would touch off a chain of correspondence — that would eventually include replies from unexpected places.

Read on, as we weave many letters into a tale for you. (All names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.)


First Contact

“Hal” wrote:

Thanks for the excellent work you’ve done — I know HeroicStories has inspired many people. I’ve been sending your stories to some prisoners I write on a regular basis. This prison system bans “all material from the Internet” as contraband in letters to prisoners, so I put the stories into the body of my letters.

The stories have inspired the three men I write to, and through them many others. When one of them was in isolation, he asked a guard to share HeroicStories with other men in isolation, and he soon earned the title “Angel of the Isolation Unit.” I really hope that I have not violated your copyright by doing this. If you want me to stop, I will, but I really hope you will allow me to continue to share these inspirational stories with these men. When they are released from prison, I will make sure they subscribe on their own!


I replied:

By doing this, you have allowed us to have the thrill of learning that our stories are reaching into places where they are TRULY needed, where we never would guess we had the ability to reach. Your actions make our work worthwhile. When the rules don’t allow you to be as good as you want to be, always break the rules. When you can help more people by breaking the rules, always break the rules. Thank you for the inspiration to act with so much insight and compassion towards your fellow human beings.


Words of Caution

One reader had misgivings when he read about HeroicStories being sent to prisoners, though.

“Bill” wrote:

The person who wrote about sending HeroicStories to criminals is making a huge mistake. The mistake is not in forwarding the stories, but in including the names of the authors. Doesn’t this person know what criminals will do with this kind of information? I had been considering submitting an article to HeroicStories, but not if this information is going to help a criminal target me.”

I replied:

Hm. We believe that we protect our authors’ privacy quite well by only publishing their names and states. We also withhold names if authors have a good reason.

But I’d like to focus on another aspect of this comment, the assumption behind the question: “Doesn’t this person know what criminals will do with this kind of information?” This statement seems to assume that the prisoners are beyond the reach of a normal human reaction to HS. That the only reaction anyone in jail would have to the stories is to see them as containing nuggets of information to use to swindle people (for which one would think the local newspapers would provide more readily accessible targets.)

There are a lot of programs helping prisoners to “rehabilitate” themselves. Real prisoners really do that, come out and lead regular lives, turn their backs on crime. And in my opinion, the rest of us ought to be cheering for that to happen more often. Because the more often it does happen, the better society we have. It seems there is an unwritten rule in society that the minute someone is in prison we judge them as worthless people who can be given up on entirely. Maybe that’s a judgement worth examining, a judgement that does society as a whole more harm than good.

So this conversation can be based on what HeroicStories actually means to the prisoners themselves, I’ve asked the fellow who writes them to ask them.

Hal promised to write his three prisoner pen-pals. He asked them “What do you feel about the authors who share their HeroicStories? And specifically, how do you use or view these inspirational stories?” He warned us it might take some time, as their correspondence was via “snail mail”.


The First Prisoner Replies

Amazingly, only four days later we heard back from Hal; on 14 February, 2003 — Valentine’s Day in the USA. The “Angel of the Isolation Unit” had replied, and Hal transcribed the response.

My name is Matthew. On February 18th, 2003 I will be released after serving a six year and one month sentence. In spite of what you read and see on TV, there is a reality that could only be expressed by those who travel this self-made journey.

Prison is the conception of ugliness. It is complete grayness, grayness in walls and clothing and even in food. And eventually the grayness in the skin of the old cons, and a grayness of the soul. Dismal, gloomy. No bright colors there, no music, no real laughter or song, no beauty anywhere. Just hard gray ugliness that seeps and presses all around us. There’s no bottom, no way to stop the continuing fall, or so I thought.

I don’t remember the date I read my first HeroicStory. What I do remember is stopping my fall and feeling happiness again. My grayness had been penetrated by stories of honesty, openness, kindness, and above all love. My focus was changed by the wonderful feeling the stories generated. But more amazing was my need to understand as well as keep these wonderful emotions alive in my life.

I hadn’t cried since I was a little boy, and there was a lot of pain within me. One day I read a story and the tears wouldn’t stop. But with those tears came forgiveness for all I have done to myself, and all the pain I have caused others.

Over the years Hal has sent me hundreds of these stories, and I have passed them on so that others could stop their fall into this grayness.

They taught me that life has its good days and not so good days, but if one has a foundation built on honesty, kindness, openness, and love, the sun shines again very very soon. Thanks, HeroicStories, for being there and stopping my fall.

Please note: Matthew wrote this letter on 12 February 2003 — and he was to be released from prison on 18 February 2003, six days later.


A Slight Detour

While we waited to hear back from the other two prisoner pen-pals, our story took a slight detour. Our Comments section keeps us busy, and on 18 February 2003, the day Matthew was released, we received the following letter from a reader, titled “HS Keeps Me Going”.

“Annelle” writes:

I subscribed to HS in summer 2001 and so saw the wonderful support everyone gave one another after September 11. HS has brought tears to my eyes many times since then. It’s been a very good thing to have such a powerful reminder of the good things people do for one another. I recently lost a loved one to murder. I need all the help I can get, and one of the things that keeps me going is the community of heroism that I see in HS. When I start to despair, which happens quite a bit, I have the option of re-reading one of your recent issues that’s still lying around in my inbox. I then see again that while there is hatred and violence in the world, there is also love and kindness and good. Thanks.

Having the incredible letter from “The Angel of Isolation” in hand, I replied to Annelle, telling her we had just received a letter that might make her feel better. I couldn’t guarantee it would help, but would send it (with personal information removed) if she was interested. “Yes,” she replied.

Annelle replied:

Thanks to you, Anonymous Prisoner.

In some ways, it is strange that in my present circumstances I could find comfort in the words of someone in your position. Yet, really, it’s not strange at all. We are all in this together. We are all human. And we can all benefit from sharing love with one another. Thanks for being such a powerful reminder of everything we have in common.

HeroicStories, thanks for sharing this. There’s a long road ahead, but it is good to have company.


More Prisoner Replies

The second prisoner, “Kenneth,” replied to Hal:

“Tell HeroicStories I really enjoy all of their stories. Reading their stories have changed the way I think. I view things differently. I know I can make a change for the better. Reading HeroicStories and all the inspirational stories really do help me — and my over all view of things. I would love to continue receiving the HeroicStories, and all the humor you come up with. Tell them congratulations for a job very well done.”

And the third prisoner, “Curtis”:

I’ve never given much thought to the authors of the “Heroic Stories” you send. Thinking about them now, I admire their writing skills and their ability to express themselves. I appreciate that they choose to share their positive experiences, many of which help to renew my faith in the basic goodness that resides in each of us.

Being incarcerated, I’m around a lot of negative attitudes on a daily basis. At times I find it difficult to see the good in those around me, and in myself. The stories help in reminding me to look for the goodness in myself and my fellow human beings. They inspire me to be less selfish and more considerate of others.

They help me keep in mind that a single kind word or act, regardless of how insignificant it may seem to be, creates a ripple effect that has a positive and lasting impact on the lives of many. I find many of the stories so inspirational that I’ll pass them along to others on my unit. When I was back in [another institution] [my friend] looked forward to your letters, which included many inspirational stories, just as much as I did.


The Story Continues: Background from Hal

When we originally wrote Hal asking permission to publish his words, he said: “You’re welcome to quote me — I’d be grateful if what I do would help inspire someone else to reach out to those who really need inspiration. I’ve been involved locally with an organization which works with prisoners during their pre-release process, and follows up with them through employment, housing, support groups and social activities. It’s a wonderful project with a really good success rate.”

Later he provided more information about how he got started writing these men. He met Curtis through work, and when Curtis was going to be sent to jail, Hal promised to write him daily. Curtis shared Hal’s letters with Matthew, who wrote Hal a thank-you note.

Hal wrote:

Matthew was alienated from his family at that point — and the letters I wrote to his friend Curtis were the only mail either of them ever got.

On 16 February 2003, Hal added:

I just talked with Matthew, but only told him that we would talk in detail on Tuesday February 18. I’ll tell him the whole story of Annelle’s letter and our exchanges after I pick him up at prison. I’m spending the day with him, taking him to get his state photo ID so that he can get on the plane to go back to his family, taking him shopping for some clothes (that won’t be gray!), and taking him to a Chinese restaurant. He said he’s been craving Chinese food with fresh
vegetables, after years of canned vegetable in the prison.

Talking to Matthew on the phone? Picking him up at prison? Are you surprised to hear this? I was astonished — and impressed that Hal would take these extra steps.


March 2006: We Have a Brief Update

After leaving prison Matthew reconciled with his family, completed courses at a Culinary Institute, and is still working in that field… fulfilling his pledge to become another “co-conspirator to make the world a better place”.


You Can Reach Out, Too

Would you like to learn more about issues facing prisoners, write a prisoner, or get involved in a program to help prisoners become functional members of society on release? Here are a few links to explore.

Want your friends to see the information and inspirational letters here? Please send them a link to this page!