When it was suggested to me I correspond with you, I was hesitant. I prefer to write and encourage female inmates for obvious reasons. But I knew your Mom was so active in FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), originally getting involved in an attempt to get your time down but she helped so many others. I knew you had just lost her. I knew you wanted to correspond.
I thought about it for a month and returned your first letter. What I received back was stunning to me. It was from an attractive 30-year-old, who was intelligent, charming, loquacious, humorous, disciplined, positive and very well read. I liked you immediately. You said I could ‘ask [you] anything,’ and that you would ‘always be 100% honest with [me].’ Before I could write back, you sent me a Valentine’s Day card and I could add sweet and even soft to those strengths.
One thing I just didn’t pay enough attention to was you mentioning right off the bat that you had been involved in a ‘pen-pal’ relationship with a girl the previous year. It had turned romantic and had included visits, phone calls, etc. She had broken your heart. Had I known then that you were insanely obsessed with her . . . that you would lie, hurt, and violate like the adult prisoner you now were . . . I would have run.
I was familiar with the case of Zachary DeBuono vs. the State of Florida. You had prior juvenile burglary convictions. While you were still on juvy probation for them, you committed 5 more burglaries in violent manners. You were charged as an adult, direct filed, and on the last one sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years. You were only age 17.
According to the Equal Justice Initiative, ‘nearly 3000 [children] are sentenced to life without parole.’ In this nauseating fact sheet, only entitled, Juveniles Tried/Sentenced as Adults Resources, it goes through case after case of children as young as 8 being tried as adults and some of them back to 1944–those of color–being executed and later exonerated AFTER their deaths. I shared all of this with you, the newest statistics, as I’m sure your Mom who fought and fought shared these statistics with so many others . . . I knew that even today only 14% of all arrests–not convictions–came from youth and 17% of arrests for all property related crimes came from youth which encompasses a wide variety. 20 years? 20 YEARS???
20 years. I sympathized with you, raged at our justice system . . . what could a man like you do NOW on the “outs” with a education? You appeared rehabilitated in every way. You were maniacal about your workouts, took personal responsibility for everything you’d done and blamed no one.
But I blamed someone, I just wasn’t sure who. What made a teenager act like that and later when you showed your true colors–the emotional capacity of an 8-year-old–what happened to that child. I gingerly ask, but you called yourself a ‘punk,’ said you wanted to be ‘cool’ and that you were very popular and cared about nothing but drinking, drugging and girls. Could it all have been that simple? Did no one hurt you?
You said your mom had struggled with some alcohol abuse at the time, fitting the sentence in there as if it were of of no consequence. She had you at age 40. Your brothers were much, much older and while your father visits you nearly once a month in prison, he never comes up once in the story of your childhood. It all seems muddled and I can’t help thinking, someone or something hurt that kid. What CHILD burglarizes homes and in a rage hits the occupants with the butt of his gun? I was an angry teenager and I couldn’t have done it. That takes a lot, A LOT, of rage and a lot of unsupervised time.
I am not blaming anyone in specific, whether it be your parents, brothers, teachers, society, or even you, though you carry blame and you have paid the price. I am wondering what you did not tell me. There is much more that happened that let’s me know you stopped growing emotionally waaayyy before you started committing crimes. You stopped growing at such a young age, it would be before most anyone starts substance abuse. All research would point to very likely abuse.
If that happened, Zach. You will not be safe in society until you deal with it. I don’t think you would commit those kinds of crimes anymore (I don’t think), but my correspondence with you was such a violating experience that you will wreak havoc in society among people who touch your life. Of course, you won’t be the first or the last, and even the fact that you’ll do so may not justify you still sitting in a cell, but bringing this chaos out into the world is wrong. You haven’t seemed to care behind bars that it was wrong; therefore, you’re not going to care out here are you?
Your mom did so much for so many. I didn’t have it in me to say to you that she would NOT have been proud. Before she died she told you that you would find a wonderful woman and have a wonderful life. Do you think she meant a bipolar maniac drug dealer who breaks into other people’s things ad shoots up in their rooms? Do you think she wanted you stalking women on Facebook through friends? But obsession is what it is. It is scary.
I didn’t see it for a very long time. For a year our correspondence was enjoyable, and you confirmed my long held beliefs that treating inmates with dignity and giving them access to education, organized exercise/recreation and other services would make them better, less violent inmates, help rehabilitate them, and make them better prepared for release back into society.
You told me how for years you used heroin, robbed others, carried around a shank and then the best thing that could ever happen to you did: you were transferred to Moore Haven Correctional Institution in SW Florida where you were given access to a weight room, recreation 4 times per day, computer classes, and a variety of skills you could be trained and certified in, such as being a personal trainer as you wanted. You told me how the first day you got there you were making a shank and your bunkie told you evenly, “This is not that kind of place.”
You were “proud” of the man you had become–drug-free and fit, a stellar athlete who took classes and was a good brother, A man well read, who made his money as the compound ‘bookie.’ I loved that you loved to learn and sent you books, wrote you parts of articles in my letters, let you know when mass incarceration became a huge political topic and sent you quotes from all the major politicians.
Our correspondence was fun, witty, intelligent, starting to become full of private jokes, (right, buddy?:) and intimate in the way friends can be. I never, ever considered you a romantic option. Apparently, you didn’t know it was that way or you didn’t want the story to be that way. You continued to ask for pictures and I sent you a few but was rather skeptical about sending tons of pics to prison. You sent ones. My fav was something you called your “mom face,” meaning you smiled in prison gear–no tough guy, no mean mugging.
I was just about to the place where I was going to suggest a visit with my awesome pen-pal when she wrote. She who broke your heart on your birthday and made you cry–a story you lied to me about . . . among many, many others. She told me later, much later when we met, that you had had no boundaries. You didn’t even care if she shot heroin as long as she stayed with you.
I reasoned, rationalized, expounded on my argument and used all the syllogism I could but you were writing her back. I felt frustrated. For a man who claimed pride, discipline, and a deep passion to take care of himself, interacting–AGAIN–with an unapologetic junkie and former sex worker whom had treated you horribly made no sense. You had said to me you were done forever. You had lied. It wasn’t the first and it would certainly not be the last time. Lying was a way of life for you, inmate, has it not been? Sadly, no education or recreation or dog program could fix your damaged insides. You said you would write but would not call. Lie #2.
And it was then that I became wrapped up in the sanity that was her. And that was you–the real you, a little child. The lies started to breed like litters of kittens from a feral cat. I started skimming your letters and putting them away when they came. I would ask you a question I knew the answer to and you would answer with a lie.
Then Inmate W20501 was transferred.
You wrote me immediately with your new address, sounding as down as I had ever heard you. No classes. No dog program. No gym. No rec. No air. Dead. Hot. Time. But you might get to work eventually. And you did. Outside the compound! You asked me to shower you with mail and I did, sending out at least a card every day for 2 weeks. Your letters got further and further apart. I knew you were caught up in her again and when I asked you about it, you . . . guess what . . . lied.
I kept writing when you’d write me, though my letters lacked passion or energy. I tried to help. I was telling you to branch out and put some of that obsessive energy going into her into friends and family. To talk to others about things and open up to other trusted people. Live a more well-rounded life, not a panicked, co-dependent one.
You completely misunderstood when I talked about intimacy and showed later you hadn’t a clue the definition of the word. I told you I missed you and thought about you. I wanted my old pen-pal back, the much more honest, much more attentive version of the man I once admired. I guess when you live with only men for 12-13 years, that means someone wants to marry you.
One day a letter showed up addressed to someone else in your writing. I assumed it was for me and you had put the wrong name on there. Only later when comparing your letters with her did I realize (because she pointed it out–she was more interested in your letters that I was at that point) that you had ask me to 3-way mail to a buddy in another prison.
I opened this letter but it was NOT for me. You would certainly not have talked to ME that way. I started marveling at what a cameleon I was dealing with. Who WAS this guy?? I read the letter and in it were confirmations to some of my suspicions and some of the lies you had told me in your own handwriting. I put the letter in a fresh envelope, addressed it with my own name and sent off your betrayal.
I contacted a person in county jail via smartjailmail whom I knew wrote this buddy. We talked through this and she said to forgive you based on your past. I will respect the privacy of the conversation(s) and say only that. We kept writing. Given our ‘nothing is off limits and you can talk to me about anything’ rules I tried to make myself more vulnerable in hopes that you would do the same, spreading out some of that need for I have to have this one person in my life, as unhealthy as they are, or I will die. I shared a few things, a very regrettable act from the past, something else I forget, and a sexual fantasy.
We had talked about sex in the past in the easy way that friends do, not in regards to each other, but I had questions about what men serving long terms did in men’s prisons, whether porn was part of the black market, etc. You told me about “Freaky Friday.” It was all very comfortable. The letter I got back was surprising. It asked me expound on this fantasy, what I liked, did I like this, did I imagine that. We had just entered another dimension and had I any idea what was going on behind my back, how far, far worse it was, how much drama you were choosing to cause, and how you were using me as a pawn already . . . and had been, I would have been gone by then.
At this point I I left her a message on Facebook stating I was in contact with you and wanted to talk. She called back that night. Less than a week later we met with all your letters in had. She was respectful (then) and sober and I understood why you liked her, though I wasn’t thoroughly impressed. She opened said she treated you like s*** because you let her. I didn’t think that was a good reason but decided to let it go.
The day before I had gotten a letter from you that was rather diluted. It seemed to be cutting off our correspondence, talking about you breaking ‘rules.’ You were referencing a sentence from your very first letter which I found odd. You also said you loved her and to let you fall. I did. Flat on your face.
The letters we exchanged were an atrocity. A violation of myself in the highest fashion, or so I thought. You had more planned for me as part of your creepy obsession. You told her all about me and then quoted and misquoted me, not citing me, using my words as your own at times. You talked of me often and she talked of me often.
First you appealed to her that I was just your pen-pal. When that didn’t work you created a narrative where there was a fierce competition for your love and attention, pulling half sentences out of letters I’d written over the whole year to make your case. I’m not sure if anyone’s ever explained to that you were making a straw man argument or if you could define a straw man argument, but your fallacies were so blatant it was laughable.
It still hurt. I did not have to spend my free time in the free world writing you or putting such effort into helping and encouraging you. For you to use me in an attempt to bring another human being your way was a betrayal of my time, my kindness, my energy, even my beliefs. You told her about the intimate things I shared and then lied about the sexual questions you ask. There was no reason to bring any of it up except to cause chaos. You whipped the batter like a group of fighting 6th grade girls.
You went along with the idea that I was addicted to methamphetamines and that I was a trust fund sex worker while then eloquently defending my right to work the streets. You gave me this same EXACT monologue when I ask you why you would want to be with her given her profession. I suspect now you got it from a book. You made cruelly and malignantly spoke of my physical appearance and age though I’m just a few years older. What did you want the pics for? A homemade dartboard?
FIRST PICTURE OF ME YOU WERE GIVEN
If you didn’t like it, why did you ask for more? I assumed it was because you wanted tangible pieces of who you were writing to. I enjoyed that, too. Were my looks or age supposed to be an issue? If you didn’t like them, you didn’t need to comment–to anyone, including me. I didn’t ask, did I?
You also admitted have been letting others open my mail (???), saying you would never, ever do that to her and that was ‘intimacy.’ You are clearly confused as to the meaing of the word. In her letters, you actually admitted to having a friend ‘stalk’ her on Facebook. Your exact words were, ‘No [name], I am the one stalking you on Facebook.’ Shivers ran down my spine. What kind of sick freak are you, Debuono?
I called you out on your lies and demanded you send back the most intimate of my letters. How GLAD am I now that I did so. If I’d known what was going to happen to the rest I would have demanded them ALL back. Most of yours were burned in a bonfire we had several weeks ago. Not the Mother’s Day card, not the personal training letter, as it is useful, and not the pictures. Also, not the letters in which you flirted, called me very attractive, or ask me sexual questions. She’s seen them already. Her boyfriend has not.
Did you know she had a boyfriend? Did you know they were dating when she demanded you stop talking to me? Did you know the whole time she was sleeping with someone else and she is now? She read us both the letter where you begged her not to leave you. You begged and pleaded, calling yourself her’bitch.’ You went on to say she knew you were a proud person but you were really a little boy saying ‘Mommy, don’t go.’ She was already gone. The boyfriend played one of the songs you had named for her as a track you meant for her (we were by his truck) as background music to make fun of you. He laughed and laughed at your weakness, desperation and vulnerability. And she immediately laughed when one of your first lines was that you hoped she wasn’t around anyone when she read it. That is how she respects you. She doesn’t. And she won’t. You don’t command it because she is right: you have no boundaries.
HER LAST FACEBOOK PROFILE PICTURE–HAPPY WITH HIM
That is why I believe you really–and I mean really–need to think and talk about your childhood. She is your first love and you cannot let go, though she is absolutely crazy. I found out about her insanity the hard way, not as hard as you, but it wasn’t happiness. I had my first love in third grade. Then he changed schools and I cried for a year. My little heart was broken. When I heard he’d be at an all night skate a year later, it took me 4 hours to get ready. My feelings were as strong as ever. He spoke to me and we skated together and I carried it in my heart for months, replaying it in my mind over and over. But I moved on. I’ve had my heart broken again; I’ve broken hearts; I’ve had long term relationships just not work out. It is all hard, but one must let go. If you are a true stalker, you’re going to end up back in a cell.
I got to know her. She became increasingly verbally abusive and started showing up at my home very, very under the influence. One day she came over, pulled out a needle, shot up heroin in my bedroom, and then when I went to the bathroom, took a knife and broke open my pill box, looking for opiates. She knew I had just gone through an operative procedure on my back and assumed I had some. I did. But as soon as she showed up I put them on my person and started hiding my valuables like crazy. I knew how under the influence she was and how far a drug addict would go to get their next fix. Nobody was safe. Some part of you knows how crazy she is, too, or at least you indicated you did. Did you only do so out of hurt?
YOUR PICTURE WITH HER DURING THE BEGINNING OF OUR CORRESPONDENCE.
WHAT YOU WROTE ON THE BACK OF THAT PICTURE.
I promptly kicked her out and she started banging and kicking the doors, screaming that she had left paraphernalia–a dirty, hepatitis c infected needle in my house and she was calling the cops and telling them I had it if I didn’t give her a painkiller. I had a curious, playful little kitten at the time and I started frantically searching for the needle. I finally decided a drug addict would never leave their ‘works’ (their paraphernalia necessary to take their drug of choice) and I called her bluff. I told her to feel free to call law enforcement but to get off my property while doing so. She finally left.
I forgave her but rarely saw her and was very careful around her. She would message me anxious to know had I talked to you. She still believed we were in a competition we never were. I continued to tell her no. Then she told me a large envelope had arrived at her home. It contained my letters. The ultimate violation. My thoughts. My feelings. My goals. What I shared with one person was sent to someone who broke into my things. You did so to prove there was nothing going on between us, huh? You violated me to the extreme in an attempt to get her back? 1) Again, she already had a boyfriend; 2) your lies messed things up between you two; and 3) had you kept our conversations private, as a man of integrity (and common sense)–not a drama queen–would have done, most of this wouldn’t have happened. But in order to try to fix it, you mentally rape me? What about taking responsibility NOW??
What is wrong with you, Inmate? I call you that out of disrespect. You showed yourself to be a man of no integrity, no principles, no morals, no loyalty, no concern for anyone but yourself. Were you getting me back? I did what I did with her to find out about your lies. I would have much rather heard it from you. I would have forgiven you. I would have continued to be your pen-pal if you decided you had to get back with her. You’re allowed to make that choice. I wouldn’t have abandoned you. You knew we were just pen-pals. Why did you try to make up those other stories? You think the dating pool is so bad out here and I’m so old and ugly, I have to go date prisoners? Are you kidding me? That would be unethical for me.
I know the lies you’re still telling–that I am “blowing [you] up with mail.” You mean the one letter saying what I’m saying to you now that was returned? It had a picture of her and I in it, arms around each other. The picture was taken on the first day we met. I wrote you 3 letters. The first 2 were too angry so I didn’t send them. I wanted no regrets from my words. The last ask you what I ask again: what happened to you as a child? What happened, Zach. It’s not an excuse for your behavior; your 20 years are not an excuse. Has prison made you so callous to the feelings of others? Care, Zach, care. It’s when the criminal justice system takes your humanity that it wins. No disciplined exercise regimen, or work detail, or dog program will change that. Don’t LOSE.
Remember Zach: You violated me badly . . . but I am free and you are sitting in a cell. Lately you have written. I don’t know why or about what. Trust is so broken, the letters stay unopened like hospital bills. The most I can muster–and mean–is take care, buddy — LC
**I do not believe children should be charged as adults. They are not adults. Research shows the average male’s brain is not even fully developed until the age of 24-25 and slightly younger for females. This includes, especially, the temporal frontal lobe which controls decision making, inhibitions and impulse control. That’s why teenagers feel invisible. Zachary DeBuono, Inmate W20501, got a raw deal because of mandatory minimums. which I also do not believe in. Each case is inherently different and we should not be tying judges hands. Even many of them think so and have said as much. Some speak out on a regular basis.
This is also certainly not to discourage anyone from getting involved with programs that help inmates or even not to correspond with them. Not at all. I would suggest writing those of the same sex and I would suggest being careful. If they start flirting, draw boundaries. Be careful what you share. Listen more than you talk. Ask a lot of questions. Point them towards services and publications specifically for inmates. I learned my lesson the hard way. One really can get so much fulfillment from helping within the criminal justice system. Get hooked up with an organization that already does so and ask them how you can be of service.
I tell this story so others don’t repeat my mistake, but also to bring attention to juveniles sentenced as adults. We must join together and stop this practice as a nation.
And for Inmate W20501. And for myself.