Leroy Writes His "T"
by Clarence Faulkner
In April 1997, I was assigned to California’s Ironwood State Prison, located in the desert
near Blythe on the California-Arizona border. I was beginning a three-year prison sentence for
drunk driving, and not happy about returning to prison for the umpteenth time, but the short sentence
was a mere inconvenience compared to my usual double-digit stints. The temperature was scorching and tension
was high as we got off the chain bus and walked to the receiving area.
I quickly found a couple of Fresno area homies who gave me the run down on Ironwood, and agreed to
let me “ride” with them. After being assigned to a cell in C-unit and finding my cellie compatible, my next
mission was to get a job so I could get the maximum good time credits of one-half off my sentence. I got on the
waiting list for the normal kitchen, laundry, and janitorial type jobs but my chances of getting hired any time
soon looked dim. A few days later I was summoned to my correctional counselor’s office for an initial
classification and program review during which I overheard, “The Adult Basic Education instructor, Mr. Weeks,
needs a teacher’s aide.” I quickly stole mental note of this valuable information, and being educated and
reasonably personable, the following morning I found Mr. Weeks and was thrilled to land the job.
Acceptance by my student peers didn’t come easy, but I was slowly integrated into the class of twenty-five men,
most of whom were adept at uttering four-letter words, but struggled with the three-letter words in their Dick
and Jane readers. After a couple of weeks following the instructor’s lead I was assigned to work directly with
four men who were struggling to make progress. We gathered at a table at the back of the classroom and for two
months we counted on fingers, divvied up matchsticks or pieces of hard candy, and read in the basic readers.
I don’t know what weekend activities could have erased all previous learning, but on most Mondays we began anew.
In time we moved on to test some real life tasks in the classroom. I had each man bring his monthly commissary form
to class to fill in and calculate his monthly order. I knew that when it comes to finding out how many packs of cigarettes,
bags of instant coffee, or soft drinks, they could buy for ten dollars, they each had amazing methods of calculation. When
Leroy, my thirty-five-year-old pupil from Louisiana, showed up with the same list from the previous month (two coffee, five
tobacco, one Tang, and ten postage stamps), I asked him, “Leroy, isn’t this the same list you had last time?” to which
he responded, “Mr. Clarence, I get the same thing every time as it adds up to the twenty dollars I get each month to spend;
if I need something else I trade stamps for it.” His method calculated any stress out of that situation!
Things continued well and I often found time to take a break and do a crossword puzzle or pen a letter. Leroy began
making some progress in his work and we often took a minute to talk about him being from Louisiana, me from Texas, gumbo,
barbecue, sports, and women. He took on a personal challenge of learning ten new words a day, and since we lived only a few
cells apart he would ask me questions about one of the words on his list when we crossed paths in the day room or on the
walkways. In short, we snubbed the prison code and became friends.
One afternoon, while I was writing a letter, Leroy came to me with a problem look on his face and said, “For a long time
I’ve been wantin’ to write some letters but I don’t know how.” I suddenly felt a sense of purpose and prodded Leroy, “Who do
you want to write?” Leroy replied, “My T, but I don’t know what to say.” Knowing that “T” meant auntie, I asked Leroy about
her and he described her much as I would my grandmother; the provider of a safe refuge when things went south at home. I
suggested that he tell her about the things he was doing, his plans to return home to Louisiana, and most of all, that he
After several drafts and mining a couple of envelopes, Leroy mailed his first letter. For the next few days I could
read the suspense on Leroy. About two weeks later, Leroy beamed with joy when he received a response, which included several
photos of long lost relatives. It wasn’t long before Leroy was busy writing half of Louisiana.
Almost a year to the day of Leroy’s first letter, I got a surprise early morning rousting to report to R&R with all
my property as I was being released early and transported by bus to face outstanding charges in Oakland, California.
My scheduled release date was ten days away and I thought I had plenty of time to sort through my things and divvy out the
items I would leave behind.
My cellie immediately woke up to claim the walkman /tape-player, which he was dying to dismantle for the small motor
to power a tattoo gun. I gathered my important papers and essential items into a cardboard box, and carried it and my small
portable television set to the counter in the receiving and release area. The transportation officer noticed the television
and blurted out, “You can’t take that on the bus!” The prison guard processing the paperwork jumped up to add,
“You can donate it, destroy it, or mail it home at your expense!”
I opted to mail it home, figuring that with my track record I might be able to have it again at another joint. The inmate
clerk found a suitable box and calculated the postage at $12.00, while I dug in my property for my stash of postage stamps,
which amounted to only $4.80. While they were processing the other transfers I was given fifteen minutes to return to my
unit and come up with the needed postage.
I raced back to C-unit and found everyone milling around in the dayroom waiting for the afternoon turnout for work,
school, and yard. I saw my crowd of homies and announced my need of stamps, but not even the guy I left the walkman with
was willing to make a donation. Then, from behind the crowd came Leroy, “Mr. Clarence, come here and tell me how many stamps
Leroy pulled out a wad of stamps and counted out what I needed. I was elated and voiced, “Mr. Leroy, I sure appreciate
your help and I will always remember you, your “T” and your saving my TV.”
Leroy responded with, “That’s all cool, but you send them stamps back, I’ve got letters to write!”
lives at the Monroe
State Reformatory, in Washington.