Love is an action word

More Than Our Crimes
Feb 28 · 6 min read

We need to know our presence is still felt.

“Enjoy the little things in life, for one day you’ll look back and realize they were the big things.” Kurt Vonnegut

I originally composed this post on Valentine’s Day, but the insane mess the postal service has become delayed publication until now. Valentine’s Day was created for lovers, but it got me to thinking about what the word means to me and many others who are incarcerated.

My collaborator Pam shared with me how Pete (a recently released friend of mine) described being treated like a “Cabbage Patch” doll when he first got out. (To jog your memory, those cloth dolls, first introduced in the 1980s, set every toy industry sales record for three years running and became a hot collectible.) His release after 30 years made him a “novel item” and he was the recipient of a lot of newfound “love” from people who had communicated with him very little, if at all, while he was imprisoned.

I know what he must have been thinking: Where was that “love” when he was serving all those years and really needed it? Can you love someone from an emotional distance? Can you love someone and not demonstrate it?

Counting my blessings

For the most part, I’ve been blessed in the love department during my incarceration. I had (and still have) a mother who basically did these 26 years with me day after day, step after step. I also have Irene (my aunt and mother’s best friend) and a few other family members and friends who have stuck with me. And over the past few years, I’ve gained the love of the woman who is now my girlfriend, Monica; a partnership with Pam, who brings my voice to the outside world; and a lasting friendship with my Georgetown University “family.”

And then there are so many others with whom I’ve come into contact along the way (even through this blog!), who have taken the time to stay in touch in whatever way they can. You all show your love in different ways — but each of you loves me actively.

How to love to someone behind bars

Being incarcerated means there are limited ways to show that love, especially during the pandemic. It used to mean traveling long distances to visit whenever possible, under the watchful eyes of guards in artificial, stilted environments. Visits have been banned for a year now (and even before COVID, federal prisons were under lockdown about half the year, making visits impossible).

So, now more than ever, it means dropping everything to take my calls, knowing the time I’m allowed to be on the phone is limited and often unpredictable. It means writing letters while following the labyrinth of rules (no cards, no more than five pages, copy on one side only, only blue or black ink, only white paper and white envelopes, etc. etc.). It also means financing calls and emails, since each of those vehicles requires money that most people who are incarcerated don’t have.

This all takes time, and resources. But each act is felt and appreciated with an intensity that I doubt most people “in the world” will ever realize. The care it takes to do these things, and do it consistently, sustains me in my darkest times and compels me to push forward.

What all of us in prison want, more than anything, is love: an ear that really hears and a heart that cares. As the quote that opened this post says, it’s those little things — writing the letter when you’re tired after a long day at work, taking the call when you’re making dinner, dealing with our incarceration even when it mars your happiness, spending resources that you could be spending on a movie — that are really the big things. The absence of these connections severs bonds and causes people in prison to lose hope and grow angry and bitter. Imagine writing someone who you love, and who says they love you, and never receiving a response. Imagine that the only time you hear from a friend or family member is on a birthday or holiday or when you reach out to them. Imagine going years at a time without ever receiving a visit or a picture. Would you feel left out, unloved and distant? This is what happens to people in prison all the time.

I understand that people have lives of their own that are full and often stressful. And I’d be the first person to say that we too need to try to put ourselves in the shoes of our loved ones, to understand that they have jobs, bills, health challenges, etc. with which they must deal daily. Several times, I’ve caught myself on the phone with Pam, for instance, so caught up in using the limited time we have to cover what we need to accomplish for the blog and our other activities that I don’t take the time to ask or to hear what is going on in her own life. One of the most poignant things I’ve realized during my time in prison is that we have all day to think about a few things and have an unlimited amount of time to dwell on them, while life is speeding by for you “in the world,” where you have multiple demands on your time.

For example, we think writing a letter and taking some pictures only takes a few minutes, so we wonder why you can’t send more. That makes us question the sincerity of “people in the streets.” But my mother has helped me realize that there are many reasons why finding the time isn’t as simple as I think. “I look at a computer all day at work; I don’t want to do that some more in my free time,” she tells me. She just wants to wind down and relax. This lack of understanding of each other’s world creates a divide.

Here is what I want you to know: Your letters don’t need to be masterpieces; they can even be just a few paragraphs. You don’t need to look cool or gussied up in your photos. You only need to talk for five minutes if that is all you have. If you’re depressed or stressed, tell us. We want to share that part of your life too. It keeps us grounded. Just do what you can. Love us actively. It helps us retain ties to “the real world.” It helps with our rehabilitation. It gives us something to look forward to.

— -

In prison, you’re out of sight, out of mind
Where’s the commitment?
Love is an action word.
Where’s the persistence?

You say you love me,
but it seems to be from a distance.
I need love that draws me in:
Love with no resistance.

A lot of people say they love you,
but do they just passively care,
a sort of check-the-box sentiment?
Love is an action word.
It needs to be actively shown,
or it seems you’re not into it.

Yeah, you love me
when ma passes the phone to everyone.
On holidays, everyone loves me.
But what about the other days,
when no one reminds you?

I don’t need your money,
although it helps.
It’s the little things that count
and makes love felt.
Love is an action word.

A visit, a letter, a photo:
anything that lets me know
you’re with me,
that my presence is still felt.
Love is an action word.

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More Than Our Crimes

Written by

Rob Barton has been incarcerated for 25 years. Pam Bailey is his collaborator/editor. Learn more at

Age of Awareness

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