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. If you’re in the bay area, Slingshot collective receives hundreds of letters from prisoners each year and is always looking for people to help us write back.
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 address that doesn’t disclose where you live.
• 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. Use reasonable caution and treat prisoners like you would another penpal.
• Be careful about accepting collect phone calls from jail — prison collect calls are usually absurdly expensive.