The New York Times

Mandela's Words Cut Through Prison Walls

THE SOUTH AFRICAN FREEDOM FIGHTER’S LETTERS FROM PRISON REMIND US THAT THE SEPARATION OF FAMILIES IS THE ULTIMATE EXPRESSION OF STATE POWER.

Some time ago, the writer Nikki Giovanni offered me guidance on writing about the life of a public person. Most of her advice I understood and dutifully jotted into a small notebook. However, one of her dictums confused me: “Whenever you receive a letter from a prisoner, make sure you write him back.” I frowned, confused but also a little guilty. I’d received a few letters with penitentiary return addresses and hadn’t responded. “Write them back,” she repeated. “You don’t know how much mail means to people in prison. You can’t imagine what they have to do just to get the stamp.”

Since then, I’ve heeded her advice. But sometimes it isn’t possible to write back. One gentleman I met at a book club on Rikers Island said he wouldn’t reveal his last

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