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 years later when I became involved in activism/community organizing that I began to understand that political prisoners don’t exclusively exist in faraway nations.    I attended a rally for Mumia Abu Jamal at Madison Square Garden (which wasn’t a garden at all or even square, go figure?!), read the autobiography of Assata Shakur’s in a Civil Rights Movement and Black Power class, and learned about Leonard Peltier's case. Despite this involvement and education, it wasn’t until a few years later more 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/grown.)   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, especially compared to 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 to be honest, 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), all the while profiting from this dehumanizing system.  Political prisoners in particular are targeted by officials, harassed, and often held in solitary confinement without reason. And me?  Growing up white and in a family who isn't seen as criminals because of our skin color and class background, 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 dismiss this nation’s violent history which began with the genocide of indigenous people, and then built by the labor of Africans who were stolen from their home, brought here in horrific conditions, and then those who survived the voyage enslaved, bought and sold, and bred like cattle.    There are many other groups that have been exploited, yet we're supposed to ignore the fact that the U.S. is built on exploitation of people and nature.    We're supposed to believe that that’s all just in the past now.  We’re supposed to believe that everyone is born with the same opportunities, privileges, resources, and options.  I know none of this is true, so I don’t buy into what I was taught, such as the image of Black Panthers being thugs.   They have rarely been recognized for their community organizing efforts focused on creating community health centers, day care centers, breakfast programs so that the kids could go to school with full bellies and learn, transportation and housing services, and many many other programs to provide for the community. (Other programs listed here)

The criminalization and incarceration of people of color in general and community organizers of color specifically divides people who actually, truly have much in common.  Mass incarceration
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 Political Prisoners who the powers that be deem criminals and seek to make invisible.


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, a 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 independent 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 opportunities constantly being cut back in prisons, creating policies that make it even more difficult for people to pursue education and read for enjoyment is just hateful.  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 (see "Order for Prisoners" for the special reduced rate).

~ 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 that you can send and/or that they can have in their cell.

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)  If printing something down from offline, you can copy and paste it into a document so that it doesn't show any hyperlink info that may get it taken away.

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/mentors 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 Haudenosaunee/Iroquois peoples. 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 or have been given 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/global 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, contacting the US Parole Board as part of an organized campaign, etc. Also, seeking out information about the details of their case/campaign from someone who's organizing on behalf of your friend can save your friend a lot of time hand-writing details that may already be available online. 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 that can be received per month or year, 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 possibly 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 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!  Lift up the voices of those most impacted - those who are incarcerated, those who've been released, and those who have loved ones who are locked up - and also, relieve some of the emotional labor of those most impacted having to speak up by addressing racism and lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key thinking and actions.  I
f 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, in solidarity with those who are isolated and silenced, and to resist the stigma and shame 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."

~ Lilla 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  NYC Jericho Movement's Prisoner page, with up-to-date addresses of prisoners and many of their birthdays as well!)

Additional Resources:
*Certain Days: Freedom for Political Prisoners Calender - joint fundraising and educational project between outside organizers in Montreal, Hamilton, New York, and Baltimore, and political prisoners being held in maximum-security prisons: David Gilbert and Xinachtli (s/n Alvaro Luna Hernandez).
*More images at: Just Seeds' Critical Resistance page
*The Gendered Nature of Prisoner Resistance and the Invisibility of Women Prisoners' Organizing
*NYC Jericho Movement's Prisoner page is great with keeping prisoner addresses up-to-date and also lists their birthdays
*Earlier blog post: The Radical Roots of Community Acupuncture in the US
*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.
*Critical Resistance: a national, member-based grassroots organization that works to build a mass movement to dismantle the prison-industrial complex.
*Dignity and Power Now: For All Incarcerated People, Their Families, and Communities

*Initiate Justice: Activating the Power of People Impacted by Incarceration

Much gratitude to Burning Books radical, independent bookstore in Buffalo, NY 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.

updated: 12/19

1 comment:

  1. I love this. Also as a post partum doula who has suffered from PMAD my heart is with other women who have suffered or are suffering. Some of the women such as Candis Bradshaw (who attempted murder suicide) are serving time while their families turn their backs unable to deal with what these women have done. Your post I feel is going to be helpful in reaching out in all sorts of situations. Thank you.