Writing to Prisoners
One of the main problems that puts people off getting involved in
supporting prisoners is a feeling of being intimidated about writing to a
prisoner for the first time. It is very hard to write a letter to someone
you don't know: people find that they don't know what to say, they feel
there are things they can't talk about, or think that prisoners won't be
interested in what they have to say. Well this is a problem most of us
have had to get over, so we've drawn up some suggestions to help you.
Obviously these aren't rigid guidelines, and we don't pretend to have
solved all problems here. Different people will write different letters.
hopefully they will be of some use.
FIRST THINGS FIRST
Some prisons restrict the number of
letters a prisoner can write or receive, and they may have to buy stamps
and envelopes: and prisoners aren't millionaires. So don't necessarily
expect a reply to a card or letter. A lot of prisons allow astamps or and
s.a.e to be included with a card or letter, but some don't. Letters do
also get stopped, read, delayed, 'diverted'. If you suspect has been or
will be nicked by the screws, you can send it Recorded delivery, which
unfortunately costs a lot but then they have to open it in the prisoners
presence. Also you should put a return address, not just so the prisoner
can reply (!), but also because some prisons don't allow letters without a
return address. Of course it doesn't have to be your address, but be
careful using PO box numbers as some prisons don't allow these either!
WRITING FOR THE FIRST TIME
Say who you are, and if it's
relevant that you're from such and such a group. Some people reckon it's
better to be upfront about your politics as well, to give prisoners the
choice to stay in contact with you or not. Say where you heard about them
and their case.
The first letter can be reasonably short, maybe only a postcard.
Obviously when you get to know people better you'll have more to talk
If you are writing to a "framed" prisoner, and you believe them to be
innocent, it helps to say so, as it gives people confidence to know that
you believe them.
Some people when they write to prisoners, are afraid to talking about
their lives, what they are up to, thinking this may depress people banged
up, especially prisoners with long sentences, or that they are not
interested in your life. Although in some cases this may be true, on the
whole a letter is the highpoint of the day for most prisoners. prison life
is dead boring, and any news that livens it up, whether it's about people
they know or not, is generally welcome. Especially if you didn't know them
before they went to prison, they want to know about you, what your life is
like etc. Use your sense, don't write about anything that is likely to get
a prisoner in shit with the screws, or get you or anyone else in trouble
with the cops.
THEY'RE IN THERE FOR US, WE'RE OUT HERE FOR THEM
imprisoned from out movements and struggles it's vital to keep them
involved in the ongoing resistance - telling them about actions, sending
them magazines if they want them, discussing ideas and strategies with
them. Use your head though. Some people will just want to keep their head
down till they get out.
This was adapted from a leaflet produced by the Anarchist Black
A few dos and don'ts on writing prisoners whose backgrounds/politics
you may not know.
Do use common sense. Use a "neutral" address, such as a Post
Office Box, for correspondence. Do not divulge sensitive personal
information (i.e. your home address, phone number, credit card and bank
details, people's full names, etc.) to a prisoner, particularly one you
have never dealt with before. This is for your security and that of the
prisoner. Be aware that authorities often read these letters and
sensitive information can get into the wrong hands. Occasionally,
prisoners have misused this information as well. Do not send money or
honor immediate requests for money.
Do think ahead. Research local prison regulations. Learn about
the prisoner before writing. Make sure to put a return address on your
envelope. When first writing to an incarcerated person make sure you ask
them specifically what the rules are for writing letters, and make a
careful note of them. No one under eighteen years of age should be
writing a prisoner -- again, this is for the prisoner's security as
well as the writer's.
Do be forward and clear in your letter as well as your
intentions. Say who you are, and if it's relevant that you're with an
organization. Be upfront about your politics and say where you heard about
the prisoners and her/his case. If you are interested in starting a
pen-pal relationship and that is all, say so. Ask if they would like to
correspond and if they'd like to discuss any topics, as well as what
topics they don't wish to discuss. Keep your first letter reasonably short
and to the point.
Do be patient. Prisoners may not write back or may take awhile.
They may occasionally sound cynical, angry or disinterested in their words
-- keep in mind many "supporters" or people who've written before may have
stopped writing them, made promises/lied to them, or they just had a rough
day and they're venting that on paper. Responding to an angry letter with
more anger is not helpful.
Do deal with the right channels. If a prisoner wants you to send
a book, ask what channels their institution requires for that, or refer
them to a Book-to-Prisoners project near their unit. If a prisoner is
getting out in the next few weeks, do not offer your place to stay (no
matter how desperate they sound) unless you have corresponded for a
significant amount of time and are in contact with both a parole officer
and a prison intermediary (e.g. prison chaplain). Even in cases like this,
it is far more helpful to a prisoner to help them secure employment and
develop a support base (whether that is through her/his church/mosque,
family, friends, etc.) than to Chances are, there's a legal process to be
dealt with in cases like this and they need to be followed by both you and
the prisoner. However, use your head and don't land in a bad situation or
one that will land the prisoner back in jail.
Do not make promises. Many well-meaning people write letters
offering support to a prisoner, or make offers for help out of good will.
Unfortunately, most never follow through and build false hope in a
prisoner. This is not fair to them. If you're writing, don't make
promises. Don't offer to do a support campaign if you can't make that
time. Don't offer to send items when you can't afford it. Be
honest. It's best to start writing and keep it that way, at least
until a relationship is established.
Do not romanticize prisons or prisoners. Many activists have
ideas about who prisoners are, why they're locked up, the system, etc.
While it's correct to have political clarity about incarceration and the
nature of the criminal justice system, it is not correct to romanticize a
prisoner, anything they might be locked up for (especially a "social
crime") and their lives. They're people just like you, and have strengths
and weaknesses. It is dangerous to assume that anyone (free or jailed) is
able to overcome all their personal weaknesses, or be completely truthful,
or is not dealing with the stressful situation they're in in negative
ways. Some are estranged from their families as a direct result of their
own actions. Some may have learned manipulative behaviors over the years.
Prisoners are people like you.
Do not discuss potentially illegal political action with a
prisoner. Again, this is for your security and theirs. Prisoners have
and can be implicated for outside action that violates the law and you
should be mindful that, if authorities even find such information in the
hands of prisoners, prisoners can face added time and harsh treatment.
Do not attempt to place political judgments on prisoners'
experiences. Some prisoners, out of desperation, write publications to
get pen pals and may not agree completely with the views of the paper, but
read it for information. Some prisoners have been converted to
Christianity or are Muslims. Some have views that may be somewhat
backward. Rather than attack a prisoner, it's best to be polite, but firm,
if there's something you'd rather not discuss or find objectionable. Do
not attack or insult a prisoner because of their religions, preferences or
experiences. If the prisoner declares her/himself a white supremacist, you
are well within your rights to explain your disagreements, encourage them
to reconsider their views and discontinue the relationship; please be
aware that several white supremacist gangs have ties to the outside from
prison and it is smart not to get into insults or threats against such
prisoners. Don't send literature unless requested and be aware you don't
have to go with every request.