When I was still in high school, I took a summer internship working for the Department of Health and Human Services. It paid well, and I needed money. I didn’t really know what I would end up doing, but I figured it’d be typical “intern” stuff, like making copies and getting coffee for people. It was, for the most part, except I had one special job: I had to read and answer letters written by prisoners to the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The lady I worked for explained that, while the letters shouldn’t really have gone to our office, they couldn’t figure out how to get them routed somewhere else [in fact, we only got the letters because another office had figured out how to get them routed to us]. The secretary didn’t want to deal with them because they were time-consuming, so she passed them off to me. All I had to do was read them and respond with a form letter saying, essentially, “We can’t help you, write to the Bureau of Prisons.”

The first letter I read was a scrawling, hand-written piece about how the author knew the government had put a microchip in his brain and was controlling his every action. If we didn’t take the chip out, he would go to the media and tell them all about it. I dutifully sent the form letter back, instead of pointing out that if we were controlling his every action, we would not let him go to the media. [I ended up reading at least 4 more letters from the same guy.]

Letters ranged from crazy to hilarious to sad, sometimes all in the same letter. One guy who wrote was a dude who converted to Judaism in prison [you know, to run with those powerful prison Jews], and he complained that the kosher food he was served was often moldy or maybe not even kosher at all. One guy wrote to Tommy Thompson, who hadn’t been secretary in 6 or 7 years, except he rendered his name as “Tommy Thompos,” which I found unreasonably funny. The entirety of his letter just asked if Secretary Thompos could recommend any effective penile enlargement surgeries or pills. I couldn’t help him. Another guy wrote in to share his discovery of a “new universal language” that he called the Montoya Code, helpfully attaching 3 or 4 pages of gibberish that I guess was supposed to be part of the code. [Mr. Montoya looks like he’s gotten out of jail and now has a website, with pages of the gibberish: http://www.montoyacode.com/]

Other times, though, I felt bad that I simply couldn’t help people. I got a letter from a gay inmate in New York who said both the guards and prisoners were abusing him because he was gay, and all I could do was send the same damn form letter back to him. Other people complained about mundane things like uncomfortable toilet paper, and I felt less bad about not being able to help them.


I came back to the internship the next summer, only to discover that what had become my favorite part of the job was no longer part of the job description. Sometime during the year, one of the workers had figured out how to get the letters routed to an office in DC, where presumably some intern was still dealing with the microchip-brain guy.