Saturday, August 27, 2011

Writing to (Political) Prisoners

When I share stories about the U.S. Political Prisoners that I write to, people often ask how I got started writing to folks and what I write about. People often express interest in supporting these community organizers who've been incarcerated, but are unsure of where to begin. I heard about Amnesty International when I was maybe in 8th grade, and learning about such injustices
really affected me.           I got on their mailing list and signed some petitions.   It wasn’t until a decade later when I became involved in activism/community organizing that I began to understand that political prisoners don’t exclusively exist in faraway nations led by militant regimes. I attended a rally for Mumia Abu Jamal at Madison Square Garden (which wasn’t a garden at all, I found out once I arrived!), read the autobiography of Assata Shakur’s in a Civil Rights Movement and Black Power class, and learned bits and pieces about Leonard Peltier's case. Despite this involvement and education, it wasn’t until years later when I got involved with the Victory Gardens Project in Central Maine that I began to learn the extent to which the US government (through the FBI's COINTELPRO program) has targeted and infiltrated organizations working for social justice, playing on divisions and fueling disagreements, tampering with written correspondence and wire tapping phone conversations, framing individuals and assassinating people.       (It was before Sept 2001 that I was learning about all this, and the meaning of political prisoner has since changed.)  I definitely recognized the importance of maintaining communication with those who are incarcerated – to let them know they aren’t forgotten; to give appreciation for their dedication to community health, education, etc; to let them know about projects happening on the outside, to learn history directly from the people that were part of shaping it.  I knew all this, still I didn’t write.    I didn’t feel like I was ever doing enough and I put them on a pedestal because of the sacrifices they’d made to their own freedom in their commitment to their own communities, and ones faraway, such as South Africa during apartheid and regimes in Central America.

Another motivation for writing to U.S. Political Prisoners is that I don’t like being told what to do.    Never have.   The powers that be lock people in cages, feed them nasty food, deny them medical attention and education, surveil every aspect of their life and communications with the outside world, deprive them of fresh air and sunlight, deem them criminals (often based solely on the color of their skin, nationality, and/or class background) and profit from this system which is incredibly inhumane to all involved.  Political prisoners in particular are targeted by officials, harassed, and often held in solitary confinement without reason. And me?  I’m just supposed to forget about them all. Fear them, vote for harsher sentencing, believe what the media tells me, and feel safer because they’re kept behind bars. I’m supposed to forget about this nation’s violent history which began with the near extermination of its indigenous people, and then built by the labor of Africans who were stolen from their home, brought here in appalling conditions, and then those who survived the horrendous voyage enslaved, forced to work, and bred like cattle.   But that’s all in the past now, right? And there are so many other groups that have been exploited, I could go on and on... The fact that our nation (the U.S.) is built on exploitation of people and nature no longer affects us.   We’re all born with the same opportunities, privileges, resources, and options, right Nope!  So I don’t buy into what I’ve been taught, such as the images of Black Panthers being leather-clad, gun-toting cop killers.  What about the community health centers and day care centers they created?  And the Breakfast Programs so that the kids could go to school with full bellies and learn? (other programs listed here)

This condemnation and separation only divides people who actually, truly have much in common.
It tears apart families, isolates community members, and it deprives us of our elders who have much insight to offer into social justice movements past, present, and future. We have much to learn from these Political Prisoners who are deemed criminals.


Drop a Line to a Prisoner from the Slingshot Planner 2010

Many people in radical circles spend a bit of their time doing prisoner support activities. This can range from joining a books-to-prisoners project that mails free books to inmates, to individually becoming penpals with a prisoner. Some people focus on political prisoners — prisoners held because of their involvement in radical actions or framed because of their beliefs. Other people see the entire prison-industrial complex as illegitimate, criticize the way that it targets marginalized communities, and/or believe that it is wrong to imprison people at all. Many people are in prison because of the war on drugs, or because economic inequality under capitalism impoverishes entire communities and pushes people to do illegal things to survive.

A key way we can support prisoners is by communicating with them. Prison is a deeply isolating environment. In an email-dominated world, writing an old-fashioned letter on paper can be surprisingly rewarding for you as well as a prisoner. There are many penpal networks that connect prisoners with those on the outside.

Here are some tips on writing letters to prisoners.
• When writing to prisoners, you have to put their prisoner number on the first line of the mailing address to get it through.
• Make sure to put a return address on your letter. If you are writing to a prisoner you don’t know, it may be best to use a PO box or other neutral address.

• If you’re writing to a prisoner, keep in mind that the prison officials or other authorities may read your letter. Don’t discuss anything sensitive. If the prisoner is waiting for trial or sentencing (or on appeal), it may be better not to discuss the details of their case.

• Prisons prohibit mailing certain items like books, food, money, etc. Ask the prisoner for the rules.

• Don’t make promises you can’t keep like offering to find a lawyer to take their case, sending them money or expensive items, offering them housing on release, organizing a support campaign, etc.— being let down when you’re locked up can be especially devastating. Be clear about your intentions. If you’re not looking for a romantic relationship, it can be helpful to all involved to say so right off.

• While the state locking people up is shitty, it doesn’t follow that all prisoners are angels. They are people just like everyone else, and some of them are flawed or can be manipulative. If you think about prisoners as just like everyone else, it will help you to use reasonable caution without treating them better or worse than you would another penpal.

• Be careful about accepting collect phone calls from jail — prison collect calls are usually absurdly expensive.

Here are some resources to get started:
Critical Resistance - Anarchist Black Cross -

Anti-Copyright. Borrow whatever you want. We did.
Slingshot is a quarterly, independent, radical, newspaper published in the East Bay since 1988 by the Slingshot Collective. For more information: Write to Slingshot or visit at: 3124 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94705 Or call us at 510-540-0751 ext. 3. Subscriptions are FREE to USA prisoners or USA low income persons - just let us know if you are either. We also send out FREE packages of the paper if you will distribute them for free to other folks in your area. Slingshot Newspaper is always on the lookout for writers, artists, editors, photographers, distributors and independent thinkers to help us put out this paper. If you have such skills and would like to contribute we'd greatly appreciate it. Please let us know if you have article ideas, artwork, calendar items, spots to add to the radical contact list, suggestions for distribution, thoughts about what we should be doing next . . .

Prison Communication Details:

Books ~ Check in with your friend or the jail/prison to see what books, magazines, art supplies, etc. that they may be able to receive.      Some facilities only allow new, softcover books sent directly from the publisher, book store, or   Check in with your friend or call the jail/prison to see if you can send a new, softcover book from your local book store!  Or ask the publisher to make a donation. Unfortunately, some publishers (at least Penguin/DK, who I called and spoke with) actually have a policy against sending books into correctional facilities. P/DK said it was because so many were rejected due to content, shipping, yada yada yada. With educational options constantly being cut back in prisons, making it even more difficult for people to pursue education and read for enjoyment is just shameful! Feel free to contact publishers to inquire about their policies and encourage their support of our incarcerated community members! And support small, local, independent businesses, too! Magazines may need to come directly from the publisher. The Sun Magazine provides free subscriptions to those incarcerated! Slingshot too!  You can also send in a Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calender. 

~ If you'd like to send photos to your friend, check to see if there are any restrictions. Often they can't be nude photos, Polaroids, and some places the photos need to be color-copied, not actual photos. There also may be a limit to the number of photos or pages of color-copies.

Articles ~ Again, check with your friend or the facility, as sometimes there are limits to the number of pages you can mail to your friend at once. Also, some facilities don't allow any articles at all, or anything that looks as though it was printed from the internet. (Some places only allow articles if it's in a magazine that's sent from a publisher)

Don't get discouraged!  Get creative!  Maybe you can color-copy a homemade
collage?! Maybe you have a friend that works at a bookstore that can help you
get good books to your friend!  Look into what publications or organizations offer
free subscriptions, books, and other resources to prisoners, and spread the word!

What do you love? As a community herbalist and health educator, I often write about the community health projects I'm involved with and what's growing in my garden when I write to friends in prison. I first started corresponding with Political Prisoners when I was working with the Victory Gardens Project and we asked "If you were a plant, which would you be and why?" We received many poetic responses that inspired us to rename certain plants. The first year after that season that I had my own spacious garden I also grew a "three brothers" planting, based on the three sisters traditional method of growing corn, beans, and squash together, a relationship with is mutually beneficial for all plants, from the Iroquois peoples, also known as the Haudenosaunee. Three of those who's responded to our "which vegetable?" question had decided on: corn, beans, and watermelon (not quite squash, but in the same family). I grew these plants in their honor and drew up this collage and map to show them:

The prison industrial system seeks to cut off prisoners not only from their loved ones, but also from nature. My friend that I just heard from today has been incarcerated for 18 months - 18 months without sun. This has serious negative effects not only on the body (no vitamin D from the source!), but on the spirit as well. In the notecards, the words, and even the stamps that I send to my friends, I seek to carry the vitality of the trees, my garden, the sunlight, and snow all into them behind bars. The system doesn't make it easy, but it's worth the effort because it's a beautiful thing to be part of maintaining a connection which strengthens the spirit, and for prisoners to feel that support and nourishment!

Names ~ Some people have chosen their own names which are different from those that the government uses for them. Check to see - list their government name on the envelope so that they are sure to receive the letter, and address the letter to the name they choose to be called by. Using their own chosen name (just as you would for someone who's transgender - using the pronoun and/or name that they identify as and wish to be called by), rather than the one they were given without choice, is a sign of respect. For example, in writings by and/or for Political Prisoners you may see the abbreviation sn, which means "slave name" - In the US slave-masters gave enslaved Africans their European last name and denied people the freedom to carry the African name of their ancestors. Some people have reclaimed African names for themselves.

Connect with other supporters~
Keep up on your friend's case, find ways that you can lend your support. Spearheading a national campaign for your friend's liberation is not the only way of being involved. Connect with others who are working on your friend's particular campaign or those working for prison justice/prison abolition at the community/state/nation/international level. This may include helping to organize a fundraiser for their legal fees, writing a letter of support to the parole board when they're up for parole, calling or faxing the US Parole Board as part of an organized campaign, etc. Also, seeking out information, especially if you have internet access, is usually much easier than your Political Prisoner friend having to hand-write the details of their case/campaign, which may actually be quite accessible if you take just a bit of time to look it up online or call/email someone who's organizing on behalf of your friend. Also, if you're mailing packages to your friend it's good to check in to see if there's anyone that coordinates what they are receiving. Some facilities have limits on the weight and/or number of packages per month, so sometimes it's better to mail your gift, food, etc. to a person that's sending a larger package. Likewise, if you're visiting your friend, it's good to find out if there's a limit to the number of visitors that they can receive in a given time and just to check in with them to see if it's a good time for a visit. Again, don't get discouraged, get creative! I've gotten good food, including herbal-food-medicine for health conditions, to the inside. Find out the rules and then work with them!  (While also being mindful that pushing the limits too much can lead to negative repercussion for your friend on the inside!)  Also, it's good to be in communication with other friends/supporters so that you can receive news of transfers - and the change of address, change in what people can receive, visiting and calling situations, etc. that may happen with being moved to a new facility.

Use your Privilege! ~
If you are on the outside, and especially if you are from a more privileged background where you are not targeted by police, not portrayed as a criminal in the media, and the life-path created for you by the dominant education system, law enforcement, and other social forces was not pointing straight to prison (see School-to-Prison Pipeline info), as it is for many people, use your privilege! Have conversations - speak up - challenge racist/classist/ hateful thinking and speech! Especially if you are connected to prisons out of choice, rooted in a sense of justice, rather than having loved ones being targeted and incarcerated. It's important to talk with folks in your circles - friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, people on the bus, etc. about prisoners rights, to give voice to those who are isolated and silenced, and to resist the stigma and blame placed upon those incarcerated. I am not speaking about condescending charity work and speaking for other people. I'm talking about speaking from your own experience (because that's the only one we can really know and speak from), using I-statements to express why maintaining communication with someone held within prison walls is important to you. How do you benefit from this correspondence and relationship? How is your liberation entwined with theirs?

"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.
But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with
mine, then let us work together."

~ Lila Watson, Indigenous Australian visual artist, activist, and academic

Away from this computer now, it's time to sit down and hand-write a proper letter, some people have birthdays this month! (See the National Jericho Movement's Prisoner page, with up-to-date addresses of prisoners, and many of their birth-dates as well!)

Additional Resources:
*Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calender - joint fundraising and educational project between outside organizers in Montreal and Toronto, and three political prisoners being held in maximum-security prisons in New York State: David Gilbert, Robert Seth Hayes and Herman Bell.
*More images at: Just Seeds' Critical Resistance page
*The Gendered Nature of Prisoner Resistance and the Invisibility of Women Prisoners' Organizing
*National Jericho Movement's Prisoner page, with up-to-date addresses and birthdays
*Earlier blog post: The Radical Roots of Community Acupuncture in the US
*Critical Resistance - a national organization dedicated to opposing the expansion of the prison industrial complex.
*Freedom Archive - 10,000 hours of audio and video recordings documenting social justice movements locally, nationally, and internationally from the 1960s to the present. The Archives features speeches of movement leaders and community activists, protests and demonstrations, cultural currents of rebellion and resistance.

Much gratitude to Rivendell Books and all the other small, independent book stores that take the time to send (and re-send and re-send again) books in to our loved ones who are locked up.

Image from Critical Resistance website.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Migrant Farmworkers in VT Stand Against inSecure Communities

Two weeks ago ICE (Immigration and Custom Enforcement) announced that their "Secure Communities" program, which three states have already opted out of, is now mandatory in every state. The program requires all law enforcement officials to send fingerprints to ICE, turning local and state police into immigration agents whether they wish to participate in the program or not. This misnamed program targets marginalized communities, separates families, and creates even more fear among those who already live with the daily threat of detention and deportation. It is clear that this nation's immigration system is broken. It's clear that this nation completely depends on the labor of those who are unable to obtain documentation (i.e. work visas are not available for year-round work, such as on dairy farms). Community organizations across the country have renamed this program "(in)Secure Communities" and have coordinated rallies, walk-outs, community forums, petition drives, and call-ins. For more information on (in)Secure Communities, see the earlier ICE Is Drawing the Line, Which Side are You On? post.

In solidarity with the actions happening across the U.S., last Thursday Vermont migrant farmworkers and their allies held a press conference, delivered a petition that was written and signed by VT migrant farmworkers to the Governor, and spoke with media, as well as state and national Representatives. Press coverage (television, newspaper, and blog), as well as a video about (in)Secure Communities created by VT migrant farmworkers, are posted below. If you haven't already, please take a moment to
encourage Governor Shumlin to take a stand against this program by signing the petition here. Please also sign the national petition here, calling President Obama to end the (in)Secure Communities program. Below you will also find postings about some of the actions happening across the country.

VT Press Conference against (in)Secure Communities

Over Lopez, Danilo Lopez, and Natalia Fajardo of Migrant Justice 
speak out against inSecure Communities.

Local Press on Actions Against (in)Secure Communities in Vermont:

Vt. Migrant Workers Decry Immigration Crackdown: Gov. Shumlin Asked To Intervene by Stewart Ledbetter, NewsChannel 5 – WPTZ, Aug 19, 2011 (click on title to view)

Migrant Farmworkers to Shumlin: Denounce Immigration Enforcement Program by Andy Bromage, Blurt: Seven Days Staff Blog, Aug 18, 2011

And this video created by Leonel and Danilo, members of the VT migrant farm worker community, and allies with Migrant Justice:

(in)Secure Communities (S-Comm)

Radio interview with Natalia Fajardo of Migrant Justice, WDEV 96.1FM, Aug 23, 2011 (link coming soon!)

Radio interview with Dana L Woodruff, community herbalist and volunteer with Migrant Justice and the Central VT Farm Worker Coalition talking about borders, No More Deaths, and (in)Secure Communities, WGDR 91.1FM's "Quilting Hour" program with Deborah Reger, Aug 24, 2011, click here

National Actions Against (in)Secure Communities:
The National Day Laborer’s Organizing Network and a National Community Advisory Commission published a shadow report entitiled “RESTORING COMMUNITY: A National Community Advisory Report on ICE’s Failed “Secure Communities” Program” This report can be download here or read online here.

Federal Policy Resulting in Wave of Deportations Draws Protests
by Julia Preston, NY Times Aug 16, 2011

The Two Faces of Obama on Immigration: He stays some deportations even as he extends the draconian 'secure communities'. Will the real president please stand up? by Sarahi Uribe

How to Walk out of a DHS [In]secure Communities Hearing This is the testimony/call for a walk out by Alaa Mukahhal, given at the public hearing on Secure Communities in Chicago, August 17th, 2011. After this call, over 300 people walked out of the meeting to join a civil disobedience by undocumented students outside.

For a national listing of actions against (in)Secure Communities, click here.

Join the “Drop the I-Word” Campaign. Calling a person “illegal” denies their human dignity. The slur opens the door to racial profiling and violence and prevents truthful, respectful debate on immigration. People are not illegal. “I will not call people “illegals” or other racially charged words that dehumanize, confuse debate, and fuel violence. I pledge to join communities nationwide in asking media to do the same.”

For more information please see earlier posts: Statehouse Adventures: Immigrant Rights are Human Rights and Healthcare is a Human Right and (Im)migration and Lip Balms for Social Justice?!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

ICE Is Drawing the Line, Which Side are You On?

This is definitely the team I'm playing on! For more info, see:
Standing on the Side of Love: Harnessing Love’s Power to Stop Oppression

Today I was on a conference call with over 100 people from all over the country who are outraged with ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) and their “Secure Communities” (S-Comm) program. S-Comm is a fingerprint-sharing program that turns law enforcement officers into immigration officials. For example, a woman called the police for help. Rather than protecting her as a victim/survivor of domestic violence, the police turned her over to ICE as part of the S-Comm program and now she faces deportation. (For more info on this case, see Victim of “Secure Communities” Program Who is Now a Vocal Critic and Abused and Deported: Immigrant Women Face Double Disgrace.) However, this program is so much more than individual’s heart-breaking, unjust stories. The program fuels distrust of law enforcement officials, creates fear, and forces communities into silence. Victims and witnesses of crimes don’t feel safe stepping forward, and this in turn further endangers already-vulnerable community members and our communities as a whole.
For those interested in learning more about the multiple forms of trauma that results from deportations in our communities, please see "The Effects of U.S. Deportation Policies on Immigrant Families and Communities: Cross-Border Perspectives." Though ICE claims to be making our communities safer, it actually itself creates a huge threat to public safety. The program is separating families, perpetuating violence, and pushes forward the very racial profiling that communities have been organizing against for years.
While ICE and state governments like Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama actively push forward racist and anti-immigrant policies, others are standing up. Communities are organizing, politicians and religious leaders have been arrested for engaging in non-violent protest, and New York, Mass, and Illinois have all opted out of the S-Comm program. Two weeks ago, during the one-year anniversary of the passage of Arizona's anti-immigration law SB1070, I was heartened to hear interviews with Rep. Luis Gutierrez and Rev. Peter Morales about their separate arrests while protesting inhumane state and federal immigration laws. Individuals and organizations are taking a stand and calling on their elected officials to take a stand, especially those who were elected on a platform of progressive immigration reform. As President Obama feigns concern over the immigration policies that cause people to live in fear, tear families apart, and promote violence, he's deported over a million people during his two years in office, all while continuing to assert that his hands are tied.
This past Friday, amidst scheduled community forums organized to receive public feedback about the program, ICE announced that its program will now completely override agreements between its office and individual states, as it is now making its program mandatory. ICE is undermining local, democratic process and forcing all states to push forward its agenda, despite the program currently being under investigation by the Office of the Inspector General, as well as the subject of intense criticism. ICE claims that S-Comm targets dangerous criminals, but in actuality, it has created an enormous dragnet that’s separating families and imprisoning those who’s only crime is having crossed a border into a country with a broken immigration system.
ICE is drawing the line. Meanwhile, the people are organizing!
What can I do?
The Migrant Justice and the Vermont Worker’s Center have collaborated with community groups to create a petition calling for Vermont to officially opt-out of “S-Comm.” On today’s nation-wide conference call today organizers were happy to hear about Vermonters taking action to speak out against S-Comm, since VT is one of the last states where the program hasn’t been activated. Though this petition was created before last week’s announcement that states cannot opt out, a strong show of support will encourage the Governor and our other elected officials to speak out against S-Comm. Please sign the petition by clicking here.
Great, what else can I do?
*Tell your friends about this petition! Email/post the link. Print the petition out, carry it with you, and collect signatures.
*Speak up! Write a letter to the editor for your local paper. Talk with your friends, family, co-workers, and with others in community organizations, at your place of worship, and other groups you’re a part of. Join the National Day of Action against S-Comm by clicking here and contact your elected officials (for an example of a letter written by NY Rep. Serrano, click here.)
*Organize! Migrant Justice will be organizing actions in the coming weeks. You can join their email list by contacting them at info@
*For more info on actions happening nation-wide, including in Chicago, Boston, Providence, NY, NJ, CA, TX, AZ, KS, D.C., see the National Day Laborer Organizing Network’s website

For more information, please see:

(Im)migration and Lip Balms for Social Justice?! blog post
The organization Cuéntame has created a video, Immigrants for Sale, outlining how private prison corporations and politicians are locking people up for profit: