Not too long ago we hosted a small letter writing night amongst friends. It wasn’t a public event, just friends getting together over some food and writing letters to our anarchist comrades who have been stolen by the State. While we’ve been in the thick of prisoner support work for more than ten years, it was a huge surprise to learn how many of our friends had never written someone inside prison. At all.
This got us thinking about how maybe there has been a shift of some kind amongst anarchists. We are meeting less and less anarchists who have made prisoner support an integral part of their revolutionary praxis. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water folks! Prisoner support is a vital part of our movements and our culture. When the State steals away one of our comrades it is paramount that we continue to engage with them, keeping them involved in our movement as much as possible. They’re inside there for us and we are outside for them. We have to mean this and we have to back it up.
We know that letters are an absolute lifeline for those held inside the cages. What fewer people anticipate is how much it benefits us out here to do this work. Being involved in prisoner support has greatly impacted the work that we do at It’s Going Down, in our cities and with our crews. Having relationships with people inside has strengthened our organizing capacities in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Being connected to other anarchists engaged in prisoner support has also helped us in building strong relationships and networks across North America. Did we hard sell this enough to you yet?
We wanted to share some brief prisoner letter writing tips for getting started, borrowed from Water Protector Anti-Repression Crew and their tour zine The Frontlines Are Everywhere. We also encourage you to check out the NYC ABC Illustrated Guide to Political Prisoners & Prisoners of War for regularly updated prisoner listings. Gather up these tips, a copy of that guide, maybe a Political Prisoner Birthday Poster, make some cards, invite some friends over and write some letters together!
Getting Started and Keep Each Other Safe
Writing to prisoners is one of the most important aspects of support. Letters from relatives, comrades and new friends is a lifeline for those inside and provides connection to the outside world. One of the hardest things for many prisoners to cope with is the feeling of isolation – being cut off from friends and family and everything they know in their lives on the outside. Prison and jail are designed to be isolating, but communication from the outside can cut through isolation and remind those inside that they are never alone.
In many cases, contact from the outside lets the prison authorities know that there are people on the outside who care and are monitoring the situation. For example, religious freedoms and special dietary requirements (halal, kosher, vegan, etc) are more likely to be adhered to if a prisoner is obviously not forgotten.
Here are some important reminders for you prior to writing your letter to prisoners:
● Every letter is potentially read by the guards, so don’t write anything that might incriminate yourself or others. Do not write about illegal activities. The rule of thumb here is don’t put anything in a letter that you wouldn’t say to directly to the police.
● Remember that some prisoners are pre-trial, which means that beyond their mail be generally monitored, it can be entered into evidence against them.
● These are political prisoners and you should obviously let them know you support their politics, but don’t start praising them as heroes. “Hero letters,” can add to the State’s repressive tactics and help label people as “leaders.” If someone is caught up for a political action they probably don’t want to be seen as martyrs – they’re just normal people, so write to them like normal people rather than fawning! Human connection is more important than heroism.
● Don’t EVER promise things you can’t deliver. Whether you’re promising books, commissary money, et cetera – breaking promises to someone inside is not in line with supporting them.
● Political literature – be careful! Unless the prisoner asks for it, avoid sending any overly contentious political material in as it can potentially cause them issues with the prison. There’s no problem sending this kind of thing as long as you ask the prisoner first and always respect their wishes!
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions people have about writing to those in prison or jail:
What should I write them?
Starting your first letter can feel difficult, especially if you are writing to someone you don’t already have a relationship with. You may be worried that what you write might sound stupid, or make the prisoner feel worse, or you simply can’t think of anything. Of course if the prisoner is your relative or friend then this part is easy, but what about a total stranger? You can simply start by telling them about yourself, what you do, what you’re into, where you got their address and so on. This breaks the ice and also make a reply easier. Apart from that, just fill a side of paper with whatever you can think of – a hike you took, a tender moment you saw at the park between a mother and child, the last movie you saw, or pretty much anything!
Most prisoners that we know have commented that while robust political discussions are great, so are letters about Harry Potter books or space exploration or poetry! The point being that these folks are dynamic humans with varied interests and parts of themselves they’d probably like to share while in a place that is designed to strip them of their humanity.
I’m not sure I can manage a full letter…
That is okay! A quick message of support on a postcard can still really brighten up someone’s day. Try taking a card to a meeting, a family gathering or a protest where everyone can sign it!
How do I make sure my letter gets in?
Make sure to write the prisoner’s full name and prisoner ID number on the envelope. Put your name and address at the top of the letter and on the top left corner. You can use a pen name if you’ve got any reservations, but bear in mind this is what the prisoner will see if they’re going to write you a reply. Some prisons will refuse to accept letters with “care of‟ or PO Box addresses so it’s best to use a street address. Some prisons have rules forbidding certain imagery (e.g. gang symbols being banned from US prisons) and this may encompass political symbols as well. Different facilities have different rules, so call the prison or jail if you aren’t sure if something can be mailed in. Typically you cannot send pictures drawn with anything other than markers, Polaroid photos, or cards that have glue or glitter on them.
What about getting a reply?
Remember that you’re doing this to support the prisoner, not to acquire a new pen-pal – although the two often go hand-in-hand! You may not get a reply for several reasons: obviously the prisoner might not have received your letter or they might be getting a lot of mail (if they’re fortunate enough), so they may not have time to reply to everyone. They may be limited in the number of letters they can write by the prison authorities and prefer to prioritize relatives and close friends. They may not have access to sufficient writing materials or stamps, they may have been moved, or they may simply not be very good at writing letters. Regardless, don’t be put out if there’s no reply and don’t let this deter you from continuing to write. Keep sending postcards and letters!
Can I send anything else in?
The golden rule here is to ask the prisoner if you’ve got any doubts. You can always try contacting the prison, asking to speak to the mail-room or an administrator about what items are approved by the facility. If you feel that the prison or jail staff is not being truthful or is misleading you, a common tactic of repression by the institution, ask if they have a copy of their inmate handbook or mail regulations for you to review. These are often available online, but not always. The rules vary widely between different prisons and are sometimes baffling or nonsensical.
If you send anything in, clearly write at the top of your letter what you’ve enclosed as this lessens the chances of guards taking items without the prisoners knowledge. Generally, books have to be from a publisher, although the guards get to decide which publishers are “legitimate.” Some people get around this by sending books from an Amazon account, which many guards accept as “legitimate.” Many prisoners have Amazon book wish lists that have been set up from which you can mail something directly. Guards may withhold some literature on the grounds of content, it all depends on which guard is looking through the mail any given day. Sometimes books or zines get through just fine, other times a prisoner never receives them.
Ready to get started? Check out this list of political prisoners here from NYC Anarchist Black Cross (ABC).