For the last few years I have been giving workshops to activists on prisoner support for movement prisoners. I believe strongly that we have an obligation to do support for people who have been imprisoned for their involvement and dedication to creating positive change in this fucked up world. Why should anyone risk their freedom if we are not going to support our prisoners who get punished by the state for taking actions that need to be taken?
People often tell me they would like to write to prisoners but that they don’t know what to say and are afraid of making mistakes. The reality is it is super simple, so in hopes of stopping any more excuses and persuading you to pick up the pen I figured I would outline the very few things you will want to avoid if writing to an inmate.
# 1 – Don’t Make Promises You Can’t Keep
Everyone hates waiting for a friend that doesn’t show up to meet you, or being stood up by that cute boy who promised he would call after last night. Well for people locked up behind bars, it is far worse because you may be the only contact they have to the outside world; so if you don’t follow through they become even more isolated. You may have great intentions when you write someone, so promising to write them every week or send them every book by Ursula K Le Guin seems like a sweet thing to do, but when you don’t come through you are not only failing a friend, you are also reinforcing those prison bars and the isolation they are designed to create. You would be far better off to just not promise them anything in the first place. That way when you send them a letter, it is like a lovely surprise that will brighten their day, rather than waiting for something that is never coming. Those Ursula Le Guin books then becomes Gifts, rather than making them feel Dispossessed. The short of it is, only make promises to prisoner IF you know for sure you can live up to them, and if you promise something you must follow through.
# 2 –Don’t Complain – Stay Posi
The point of writing someone inside is to help them feel connected, to help them escape; if not literally them metaphorically (If you try to hide a file in your letter it will get confiscated and the prisoner will get in shit for it). Remember why you are writing. We all have shitty days, and often want someone to wine about it to who will listen, but no matter how long you had to stand in line at the bank or be put on hold by your cell phone company – it will never compare to how much time a prisoner spends waiting in lines. Send your complaints to the editor, not the prisoner. A prisoner doesn’t want to hear about your shitty day and petty drama that they can’t effect; they would likely much rather hear about the awesome dog you played with, the rally you went to, the great book you just read, or the cute baby who beat your ass at chess yesterday. Hell, if you can’t think of anything to write, draw them a picture or cut out some photos of wildlife or cute kitties from a magazine. Some folks also love crosswords or sudokus.
# 3 – Don’t Say Stupid Shit
Maybe that sounds too obvious, but let me explain. Every letter you write to a prisoner is going to likely be read, and especially if you are using email through prisoner correspondence sites like Corrlinks which are recorded and copies are kept. So if you decide to tell Ted Kazcinski you think he is a hottie so your going to make bombs to send to people he doesn’t like, not only will you likely get raided by the FBI, but he will also end up in the hole. Yup, prisons read your letters for a reason, and if you say anything about illegal shit you are involved in or people you know are involved in, the prisoner will get punished for it and it could even be used against them in later court dates. I know this might sound like common sense and thus not need to be stated, but lets be honest here – common sense is anything but common.
# 4 Don’t Be a Creepy
I remember when my friend Kelly went to jail for G20 bullshit, she started getting these letters from some fucking creep hitting on her and telling her she was hot (from the photos the media was using of her from the riot). THIS IS NOT OK. It is not OK to be a creep, whether it is hitting on the cashier at the grocery store who is paid to smile and be pleasant, the waitress at the caffe who needs her paycheck and tips, or in this case, a prisoner. These folks are literally a captive audience unable to smack the fuck out of creeps who deserve it do to their situation. So even if you do think old Uncle Ted is the bomb, keep it to yourself. Sending a letter with uninvited sexual content is like sending them an emotional letter bomb.
If you are truly intent on having that type of correspondence with a prisoner to fulfill some sexual kink that turns you on, OK; there are actually websites for prisoners looking for a flirty pen pal or relationship. In the end it is about consent; if they want that type of contact, let them seek it out. Don’t harass prisoners who are not asking for you to objectify them while they are locked up.
# 5 – Have No Expectations
I started writing to prisoners a few years back now, and I have been lucky to get a few really good pen pals out of it, and to form real friendships that I believe will outlast their prison sentences. I have had prisoners send me artwork, poetry they wrote, books they wrote while inside and of course many letters. However I have also written many letters to which I have never seen a reply – and that is totally OK. The reality is that prisoners have far less access to resources than we do. Even if you are poor as fuck like me, and run out of money every month, or work some minimum wage shit job, you will have far more money than most prisoners. In the colonial nation state that calls itself “Canada”, an average prisoner makes around $2-$3 a day… Yes, you read that right, per day, not per hour. Unlike prisoners south of that imaginary colonial line, all stationary, toiletries, and personal care items must be purchased using what the prison labels “earned income.” What this means is that for a prisoner to write you a letter they must use their prison wages to buy the paper, pen, envelope, and stamp; at whatever price the prison canteen sets for these items since there is not competing businesses inside a prison. On top of that, time might seem like something a prisoner would seem to have an endless supply of, but really from people I have known who served ‘time’, it doesn’t seem to feel that way when you are on the inside. So what I am saying here is when you write a letter to a prisoner, have no expectations. Teat it like you are sending your words on the wings of angels, and if you do get a reply, remember how much that person had to give up in order to return your correspondence. Often many of us tend to take our relationships for granted, you simply can not do that with someone who is a captive of the state.
Beyond that remember the basics, your letter will need to have a return address (I often write my return address on each page in case the prison decides to fuck with them by “loosing” a page, It is also a good practice to number your pages for this reason), as well as the prisoners legal name (and number in the US) needs to be on the letter. Don’t put stickers, stamps, perfume, glue or glitter, on the pages or the prison may confiscate the letter or deny it. A less obvious one is that most prisons do not allow you to send blank paper, art supplies, or extra envelopes or stamps – demanding instead that the prisoner purchases those from the prison itself.
by Comrade Black
You can find lists of movement prisoners along with their mailing addresses on any of the following websites:
Anarchist Black Cross