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Sam Miller and 'The Jail Letters Project'

Sam Miller is a big, bustling comic who’s emerged as a central figure in Olympia's newly invigorated standup scene. He founded Vomity, a progressive-minded open mic similar in its anti-oppression ethos to Seattle’s own Comedy Nest, and in three short years Miller has established himself as an endearingly positive presence on shows throughout Western Washington. 

Miller is a father, recovering addict, former inmate and Evergreen graduate. His comedy draws on all of those identities, contrasting past misadventures with current domestic life and hard-fought realizations. In a field crowded with disaffected 20-somethings just beginning to form coherent identities, the 34-year-old Miller’s unique life path—and his attempts to grapple with it onstage—make him stand out like an inflatable wacky waving tube man. His act is a peculiar pairing of high-energy bluster and thoughtful self-examination. He gives off the vibe of a gentle but excitable big brother who’s seen some shit in his time or the 12-step sponsor you wish you had.

This month Miller attempts a new, non-comedy venture: The Jail Letters Project, a multimedia presentation that features correspondence between himself and his mother, Mary Soehnlen, a now-retired psychiatric nurse practitioner. The letters were written during stints in the Yakima County Jail for non-violent crimes stemming from the chaotic life of a drugged-out alcoholic teenager loose on the streets of Olympia. On April 27, Miller and his mom will read their own words and talk about their divergent experiences of incarceration with the perspective granted by their separate paths to recovery over the past 14 years.

I talked to Miller—and his mom—about the show.

How did you end up in jail?
Sam Miller: We have a history of addiction and alcoholism in my family and my dad died when I was 12. There was a period between 18 and 19 years old where I got arrested over and over again for relatively minor stuff: possession of marijuana, being drunk, shoplifting wine, resisting arrest. I’d be on probation, then I’d get arrested and they’d set a court date for the four charges that I just caught plus the probation violation and then I’d get arrested again in between that and the court date. It started stacking up. They sent me to rehab a couple times and the judge said, “If I see you again I’m gonna lock you up.”

I was 19 when I did the bigger stint in Yakima [County Jail].

You talk about incarceration in your standup act, so it’s already a part of your public story. What made you decide to take it further with this show?
I went to college at Evergreen and took a class called Prison Writing that Elizabeth Williamson taught. I was the only one in the class who’d ever been incarcerated. We’d read stuff that people wrote while they were incarcerated and we’d write about it. Of course, my writing was a lot different, having experienced it. For other folks it was this concept about what it might be like to be incarcerated, but to me it was an experience.

I told my mom about the class and she said, “You know, I’ve got all these letters.”

It’s really common to see letters that inmates write. What’s not common is to see letters that my mom wrote to me, because generally people won’t be allowed to leave the institution with those letters, or they get lost or whatever. That’s what makes it strange, the way those play off each other. We were very confused about what the other one was going through.

What did you write each other about?
Her letters have this air of false, silly hope that I was gonna get out and start working and just be a citizen. My letters, at first were like, “I won’t drink anymore! and “I wish I could go back in time and not be such a turd!”

It’s a weird, contentious issue between us to this day. She felt like that was a safer place for me, to be incarcerated. But it was anything but a safe place; it was a really dangerous place, especially for a 19-year-old.

Is this a funny show? Are you able to wring humor out of it?
There’s humor in there. You know how I am. In a lot of ways this experience of being incarcerated is really when my sense of humor started to develop. A lot of the funniest people I’ve ever met were folks I was locked up with. Old school convicts, they’re just fuckin’ hilarious—it’s this refined sort of style. The content itself is shit that I really wouldn’t... There’s stuff I said and believed and thought was funny back in the day that I’m not proud of. A lot of the shit we were saying to each other in jail was making fun of each other along racial lines.

It’s an incredibly masculine, ugly place, and the state designs it to be that way. That’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s meant to be awful.

What kind of insights did you have going back and reading the letters?
It’s wild. I’ve been sober for eight years and as far as insights, a lot of it’s pretty embarrassing. I was so foolish. As I’ve stayed sober it’s become harder and harder to identify with this guy I was.

With the recovery it’s important that I take responsibility for my part in this shit and I think I do a fairly good job of doing it. But also it’s become even more apparent that this system is fucking bullshit. I shouldn’t have been locked up. It didn’t benefit me, it didn’t benefit society and it sure as hell didn’t benefit my mom.

[To his mother, Mary] How did it feel for you to go back and revisit those letters?
Mary: It’s difficult. There were only a couple of my close friends who had any idea what was going on with Sam’s situation. I was a psychiatric nurse practitioner working at the VA hospital and this was the part of my life that I didn’t talk about. There was a lot of shame associated with that—it was a big secret. My colleague’s kids were getting ready to go off to college and I was going to Yakima to visit my kid [in jail]. It felt very isolating.

For these kinds of non-violent crimes, folks need treatment. They don’t need to be locked up. I was relieved when Sam got sent to jail because I knew where he was, and to the best of my knowledge he wouldn’t be drinking or using in jail. I thought of this as the solution, a safe place. Now, looking back on it, that was kinda ludicrous.

I’m retired now and I’m happy for Sam. And wouldn’t you know it, we’re living together now. How weird is that?

So you still know where he is every night.
Oh hell yes! I know where he is. I’m downstairs and he’s upstairs.

[To Sam] How does this show fit into your comedy?
Sam: So many of my jokes are centered on addiction, even though my experience isn’t nearly as bad as other people’s. I guess I’m dumb enough to not realize the stigma attached.

Do you have any further plans for it?
I’m gonna see how it goes in Olympia. For this to be a genuine thing it’s not so much a show as it is a conversation between my mom and me that people can hear. There’s likely to be disagreement; there’s a lot of anger and frustration. We’re in a really good place but it was really messy. Incarceration still affects how I deal with people.

What do you want people to get out of the show?
Part of me wants them to leave and see some sort of middle ground between my mom and me. Folks who are already fairly radical, prison abolitionists, are gonna recognize a lot of what I’m saying. I hang out with all these activist circles where me having an experience being incarcerated is useful. People know they can talk to me about this shit.

There weren’t a lot of white people in the Yakima jail. As I got older and sober and I got some education, I realized the reason there weren’t a lot of white people in the Yakima jail is because it’s really hard to go to jail when you’re white. When I get into debates with white people about “reverse racism,” I’m like, “Listen, if I didn’t experience racism in the Yakima jail you didn’t experience it when you didn’t get a job at Home Depot. Shut the fuck up.”

It was the first and probably the only time in my life where it didn’t work out to be white. That’s why white nationalism is so popular in prison.

Their first taste of real victimhood.
You’re in this spot and most of the Latino cats in there were fairly straight-laced, because the INS used the Yakima jail as a holding cell—they’d contract beds. And so would the Department of Corrections. So they’re putting cats who have murder and rape beefs in there with cats who are waiting to be deported who got, like, a DUI or something. And then you’ve got my big white ass who was smoking weed and being an idiot in Olympia who pissed off all the judges—I’m in there too. What the fuck did they think was gonna happen? I’m still heated. I’m still upset.

There’s some stuff popping off at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma right now—
The hunger strike, I heard about that. I’m never surprised. I hear about these social justice movements in prisons and I get embarrassed because I wish I would’ve done something like that in there. Maybe that’s what this project is for me. I can still do something with this.

The Jail Letters Project takes place April 27 at Obsidian in Olympia.

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