George Wayne Cameron (1959-2019)—a prisoner serving Life Without Parole in an Alabama prison near Birmingham—died over Memorial Day weekend. I’d known George since 1996 when a Good Friday prayer card at Marble Collegiate Church came into my hands. The cards weren’t meant to contain contact information; just things like… “My grandfather has diabetes and will soon die, and I have no one else in my life. I am in prison.” Which is what his card said. But it also included his contact information. I checked with one Marble’s clergy, who opined that it would be all right to be in touch if I could commit to continuing the contact. Seemed like the right thing to do. Now it’s 23 years later, and after about 10 years in the prison infirmary for various lung infections, George (as I called him), Wayne (which was his name of record), died away from the infirmary, in a prison hospital.
We wrote back and forth for over 20 years. Circumstances inside Donaldson Correctional Facility didn’t change all that much during that time. His letter to me from November 1996 could have been written almost any time since: “Dear Robert… Hi. Hope that all is well your way. Things here are slow, but going okay. … I got ahold of a couple of books and have been reading mostly this week. About the only neat thing this month is that we will get a slice of turkey for Thanksgiving. … My grandfather had his eyes lasered so he says he can see better. My sister said he got a couple of hens and a rooster. He must be starting a farm now. All he needs is some pigs to make it complete. … Well my friend, you take care and don’t work too hard. Write me when you have the time. I send you my prayers. Your friend, George.”
I visited him a number of times in the first 13 years, driving the two hours from Atlanta to Birmingham, staying overnight in a nearby motel, getting to the prison to be early in line (fortunately, because one time, I was wearing blue denim jeans, the wrong color, absolutely not allowed, they looked too much like prison uniform and when I left the visitor line, a good Samaritan in the parking lot had an extra pair of black jeans that actually fit, which he was willing to lend me). George an I would talk about sports, or New York City, or his family, or my family. Or the latest Bible courses he’d gotten certificates in. Or the latest thrillers he’d read. Driving back to Atlanta I’d open all the car windows just to feel the wind on my face.
George was a great reader, quickly devouring the latest James Patterson or Lee Child, telling me how he’d sometimes have to ration the books, reading only a few chapters at a time, to make them last. Then he’d pass them along to another inmate. Like the “goodies” he’d buy “off the store” from the few dollars I sent him from time to time. He was only allowed to receive two books per month.
I was, apparently, it. His grandfather died shortly after he and I started corresponding. His folks died, and he rarely heard from his sister. His crime? Murder in the course of a drug deal gone bad when he was in his mid-20s. George told me that it was the other guy who had the gun, but blamed it on him, and got off. George’s public defender told him to take the LWOP plea. From what I know of George, his version sounded true. Actually, to me, it didn’t matter either way.
Aren’t we all, actually, sitting on a host of fears, able to get through each day through grace and idle circumstance? Isn’t fear of abandonment primal? Cast out from the circle around the campfire, stranded in the wilderness, no one to help, no one to hear our cries, our laughter, our tears. Let’s all take a page from E. M. Forster’s dedication to his novel Howard’s End : “Only connect.” And then figure out the how and the way of it, and take some action.