Iowa woman writes letters to prison inmates for decades

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DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) — Jean Basinger writes letters to prison inmates in Iowa. She has done this for 30 years.

You can tell a lot about a person by their handwriting that you can't tell in an email, she says.

The 79-year-old from Des Moines hands over a card she got before Mother's Day, carefully handwritten by an inmate.

"Tomorrow is never a sure thing, so Happy Mother's Day," he wrote, "I respect your altruism, understanding and kindness."

The man sent a gift as thanks for her work advocating for Native American inmates who wanted materials for a sweat lodge, which she helped pay for. It was a lovely pink rose, made from toilet paper, The Des Moines Register ( ) reported.

The prisoners find whatever they can to give something back, she said.

Basinger, who last month was awarded the ACLU of Iowa Louise Noun Award for her longtime defense of civil liberties, has always simply wanted inmates to know they're not forgotten.

This is no naïve grandmotherly type shipping off money to inmates.

"She is a pit bull," said Ed Fallon, a former state legislator whom she worked for at the Statehouse. "She's also the most polite, balanced woman I've ever met."

In her correspondence with inmates, Basinger began to see what their lives were like inside. It wasn't always pretty. She learned of problems in the prison system and advocated for changes, often pressing those in power.

She saw an excessive use of solitary confinement, lack of mental health services, the high cost for prisoners making phone calls or harsh restrictions on visits and raised a voice. In 1991, she helped form the Justice Reform Consortium, 17 organizations working on prison reform through legislation, including changing laws on sentencing juveniles to life without the possibility of parole.

"Advocacy takes place on a macro level. You are trying to change policies," said Erica Johnson, ACLU of Iowa's advocacy director. "But her work and personality really show that it is the individuals and their stories that are impacted by these policies."

It's all in the handwriting.

Basinger hands over another letter. It came to her from a female inmate after Basinger's husband, Bill, died one year ago. Most of the sympathy she received during that tough time came from inmates.

"I think of you so often Jean," says the letter. "It sucks that I can't hug you during this time, but I'm praying and sending you love. I hope you are well and on the really tough days, I hope you know you are never alone as you feel. I love you and I'm grateful for you Jean. Love and hugs."

Bill led her to this work, although her heart was already there. During a "commitment night" at a youth church camp in Okoboji, the farm girl from Goldfield felt a call and knew she was meant to help others. She became a nurse eventually, but it wasn't until she joined her husband on missions to Japan and South Korea that it became clearer.

Bill had seen the horrors of the Korean War during his military service, and in 1974, they began work there as Presbyterian missionaries. She worked as a nurse in the slums, and Bill helped people with disabilities as they advocated for freedom under the dictatorship. They hid South Korean activists in their home for safety and were interrogated by government officials. On a blacklist and facing deportation, they returned to the U.S. in 1980 with their six adopted children.

When they returned, she never forgot friends imprisoned in South Korea for human rights efforts. The Basingers would continue their protests, traveling to Iraq as part of the Christian Peacemaker Teams in 2004 to witness the devastation of war.

Long before, she focused attention on others who are suffering or forgotten, joining the Criminal Justice Ministries' "Pen Pals" program.

One of the first inmates she wrote to was concerned about the treatment of the mentally ill in prison, and she soon found that her correspondence would be more than waxing about the weather or old times.

"I think he appreciated the fact that I cared about what was going on," Basinger said.

The relationship grew, and when the man was released from prison after serving 28 years, the Basingers picked him up at the doors of the jail in Fort Madison.

"The world had changed," she said.

The man found his ignorance of it humiliating, and he continued to ask for permission to do anything, as if he were still in jail, Basinger said. When he got a car, he put only $1 of gas in it, remembering old prices. The car would soon run out of gas, and he would call Jean. He lost weight, couldn't maintain a job, and was eventually sent back to prison, later dying of cancer, she said.

"It taught me a lot about how hard it is for people to adjust when they come out, and it taught me what was going on in the system. A lot of them say when they get out they want to help young people. Usually they disappear. It's so hard for them to adjust."

Basinger not only continued to write, but also visited the prisons. She gained access when she went to work for Fallon in 1996. Fallon received numerous letters from inmates as a state legislator. They had complaints, and it was just too time consuming to work on all their issues. Basinger stepped in and did it for him.

"Once you start helping someone, then word gets out in the prison," Fallon said. "What it says to me is we need more people like Jean."

Basinger railed against the policy of expensive prepaid phone calls, and now prisoners are charged a lower flat rate. And she worked on individual injustices, helping an inmate who was overcharged for prison health care, or helping another get spine surgery, which improved his quality of life. She began going to every Department of Corrections meeting as a leader in the nonprofit advocacy organization Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE).

"When there is an unfair ruling or unfair treatment of a prisoner, she knows the exact person to contact on the parole board or in the prison," said Carolyn Uhlenhake Walker, a CURE volunteer who has followed Basinger's advice on writing to prisoners. "She has really made herself known."

Iowa Department of Corrections assistant director Fred Scaletta said Basinger has been an "important voice for the Department to address offender needs."

But as the letters increased over time, Basinger learned to set limits for inmates. No asking for money. No sexual innuendo. This isn't a romance, even if it may lead to friendly visits. Only one inmate has made a threat, but she gently tries to ease out of those relationships and remains unafraid of those who are released.

They are people, after all, who are often victims themselves and just need a friend to listen because their families have drifted away, she said.

Society often treats criminals like they are monsters, as they are depicted in movies and television. What they need, she said, is rehabilitation.

The "get tough on crime" trend of the 1980s and 1990s, when politicians boasted of being the toughest, has shifted of late. Several of the presidential candidates of 2016, including former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Sen. Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul, have indicated they want to address mandatory minimum sentences because of the financial and human cost.

Inmates often write to her about their beliefs, their complaints, their spirits or work in prison. She reads justifications for their crime, what she calls a lingering "criminal mindset," or their heartfelt sorrow for the mistakes that have hurt the families that they dearly miss.

"They do a lot of thinking," she said. "They've got a lot of time for it."

One inmate wrote how he trained a mouse. Another sent wonderful cartoon figures out of colored paper, although he spent 23 hours in lock-up because of his mental illness.

In the upstairs bedroom of her west-side home, she keeps a tall filing cabinet filled with letters and files of each institution, labeled "Fort Madison" or "Mitchellville."

Her longest correspondence with an inmate has lasted 10 years. She recently visited him in prison. She said he is there for "attacking someone" and has a mental illness.

"But he's extra intelligent. He likes to read and write about the issues of the day, or about movies," Basinger said. "He doesn't have anybody. This relationship is important to both of us. He is afraid I might die before he gets out."

The letters stacked in her home are decades of evidence of lives remembered.

She hands over one more. It came to her on Valentine's Day, her first after Bill had died.

"...When I received a sympathy card when the person I loved most in this life (my son) died, you proved to me that there are people in the world who still care about our pain and grief," the letter states. "A lot of people think it's justified that people like me should feel that depth of torture. It's people like you who inspire me to be more than my judgement & sentence. They may have thrown me away like I was garbage when I was young, but because of you I believe my life has value, and I hope someday I can make a positive difference in this world too! You are a GREAT inspiration and hope to us!!"


Information from: The Des Moines Register,

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by The Des Moines Register

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