Write a Letter

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Supporting prisoners is an important part of the resistance. One concrete way to offer this support is writing a letter. This episode features interviews with activists doing prisoner support in New York and offers ideas on a few ways to get involved.

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Organizations Mentioned in this episode

  • NYC Books Through Bars is an all-volunteer-run group that sends free, donated books to incarcerated people across the nation.
  • Anarchist Black Cross NYC is a collective focused on supporting US-held political prisoners and prisoners of war and opposing state repression against revolutionary social justice movements. ABCNYC is part of the Anarchist Black Cross Federation.
  • Critical Resistance seeks to build an international movement to end the Prison Industrial Complex by challenging the belief that caging and controlling people makes us safe.
  • Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement (RAM) is a political movement dedicated to freeing people from bondage and building resistance in the United States.

Guides to writing a letter

History in this episode

More Resources

  • “Voices Inside” is for the words Decarcerate PA received from our allies and comrades inside Pennsylvania’s prisons. Many of these statements were given to us to be read at protests and rallys, including the February 20th Occupy for Prisoners rally and the November 19th Tribunal to put the PA Prison System on trial.
  • Black & Pink is an open family of LGBTQ prisoners and “free world” allies who support each other.
  • Kite Line is a podcast that seeks to to amplify the voices of those within Indiana’s prison system, while encouraging dialogue with those on the outside.
  • Ear Hustle brings you stories of life inside prison, shared and produced by those living it. The podcast is a partnership between Nigel Poor, a Bay Area visual artist and Earlonne Woods, currently incarcerated at San Quentin State Prison, and was co-founded with fellow inmate Antwan Williams.

Music for this episode:

  • “Piano Improv 1” by Sephy

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Rebel Steps, Episode 003, Write a Letter

Liz: Welcome to Rebel Steps. I’m your host Liz.

Supporting prisoners is an important part of the resistance. One concrete way to offer this support is writing a letter, real pen-and-paper type of things.

To some of you just starting your journey into activism, you may be wary of people who have had conflicts with the police. Many folks have fallen for the myth that social change can happen without unrest and without conflict.

For example, I know many people who consider themselves resistors celebrated the Women’s March, both in 2017 and 2018, for being legal and friendly to the cops. If you’re one of those folks, I want you to take a minute to think through some of the social progress that’s happened in the US. Today, many people are uncomfortable with protests that result in arrests, but arrests often took place during protests from the past that we think of as positive.

The Civil Right movements saw enormous arrests and police violence aimed at protesters seeking justice. During Freedom Summer, 1,062 people were arrested. When women were lobbying for the right to vote in 1917, 33 suffragettes were arrested outside the White House.

Frederick Douglass put it best, saying “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

The police and the prisons are not here to promote social change. If you have a problem with the status quo, you’ll run in a problem with police.

Liz: Writing letters to political prisoners has always been a part of movements facing repression. In her autobiography living my life, Emma Goldman writes about being on both sides of this. While her then partner and lifetime friend Alexander Berkman in in prison she writes, “For the present, letters from the outside were his only link with life, I must urge our friends to write him often.” While she herself was imprisoned, she spent hours reading and writing letters. She later uses these letters to write her autobiography.

In the present, Anarchist Black Cross chapters across the country host letter writing nights. The New York Chapter writes on their website “A letter is a simple way to brighten someone’s day in prison by creating human interaction and communication–something prisons attempt to destroy. Beyond that, writing keeps prisoners connected to the communities and movements of which they are a part, allowing them to provide insights and stay up to date.”

John: My name is John with the New York City Anarchist Black Cross. We do support for political prisoners and prisoners of war held in the United States.

Liz: Jon’s been involved in ABC for many years.

John: The thing that inspired me to start writing letters was when a buddy of my from school, who was the first anarchist I’d ever met, ended up going to prison. And he had told me about this group that was doing suport for him and I decided to go and that kind of introduced me to not only prisoner support but also anarchism in general.

Liz: Now onto your letter. Writing a letter can seem both easy and daunting. Here are a few of the most important tips:

John: What I always tell people when they’re writing their first letter is a couple things. Number one, include a lot of detail because folks on the inside, their day is so regimented and so mundane that oftentimes they don’t get to experience a lot of the things that we take for granted so something that you might think is a boring detail might make a person happier or give a person something to think about on the inside. Another thing, especially with political prisoners, is even though their stories are usually wild and super dramatic and super real and revolutionary, that they’re coming from the same movements that we are. That they’re just regular people like we are and to speak to them comfortably as you would a comrade that you know on the outside.

There are lots of restrictions on what supplies can or cannot be be used on letters headed to prison. The safest bet is to stick to blue or black ink and plain lined paper. Arts & crafts supplies like glitter or paint are generally not allowed. Each facility has its own set of rules.

The prisoner will likely get the letter without the envelope. Include your return address on the letter itself. Include page numbers so it’s clear if a page goes missing.

John: Another thing would also be to not promise anything that you can’t deliver on. Folks on the inside, while they definitely appreciate the love and support from folks on the outside, getting disappointed with the lack of response or the lack of follow through is even heightened because of their controlled situation and controlled setting.

Liz: You should never ever write down anything illegal.

John: There will definitely be state officials reading mail going into prisons. Just like when you’re on social media, or talking the phone with your friends, or texting people, don’t talk about anything illegal because it could come back to harm you or your community.

Liz: Anything you write can be held against them, whether or not they asked for your letter. Additionally, avoid talking about their case at all, especially if they are pre-trial.

Liz: Assata Shakur remembers the experience of receiving letters and the fear of the authorities reading them in her autobiography. She wrote “I wasn’t able to answer all of those letters, because the prison permitted us to write only two letters a week, subject to inspection and censorship by the prison authorities. It was hard for me to write anyway. I was also very paranoid about letters, I could not bear the thought of the police, FBI, guards, whoever, reading my letters and getting daily insight on how I was feeling and thinking. But i would like to offer my sincerest apology to those who were kind enough to write to me over the years and who received no answer.”

Lastly, this is not just a good deed. Anarchist Black Cross New York City says “Writing to prisoners is not charity, as we on the outside have as much to gain from these relationships as the prisoners.”

John: The last couple of recently regular correspondences that I’ve had have been very meaningful. One that I’ll talk about was with a former black panther named Maliki Shakur Latine. Who was in prison for decade for an alleged action that occurred dealing with the cops. And through my correspondence I was able to develop enough of a relationship and closeness with him to join his support campaign which eventually, thanks to the work of the other people who have been supporting him for years, lead to his parole a year and a half ago.

John: So one of the things that surprises me throughout all of these folks, especially with the folks who have been inside longer, is that over time, with the support of folks on the outside, they have been able to develop a way of dealing with things with their incarceration. Meaning that they are not typically overtly pessimistic about things, they still have good spirits, oftentime they’re still very grateful, they still want to be connected to people on the outside, their life isn’t over once they’re incarcerated and it’s very inspiring.

Liz: While supporting political prisoners holds a special place in activist circles, there’s lots of work to be done supporting all prisoners. The brutality of policing and mass incarceration is unjust and everyone effected is deserving of your empathy and support.

People of color are disproportionately affected by mass incarceration. In the US, there is a direct historical link between slavery and modern day prisons. If you’re looking to learn more about this history, watch the Netflix documentary, 13th. The title is a reference to the 13th amendment to the constitution which abolished slavery, but with a exception for those convicted of a crime. This exception has contributed to the continued systemic oppression and exploitation of people of color to this day.

To draw a parallel to the work of slavery abolitionist of the past, those working to end mass incarceration today describe themselves as prison abolitionists.

Prison abolitionists work to end prisons and the broader prison industrial complex.

Critical Resistance, a prison abolitionist organization, summarizes the prison industrial complex as “the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social and political problems. Through its reach and impact, the prison industrial complex helps and maintains the authority of people who get their power through racial, economic and other privileges.”

The Revolutionary Abolitionist Movement writes “We situate our political movement in the context of the abolitionist struggle against slavery and continue in the tradition, from Nat Turner to the Black Liberation Movement.” As part of this work, they hold letter writing nights similar to Anarchist Black Cross, but encourage writing to all prisoners. Included in their letters is a catalogue of revolutionary literature that prisoners can write back and ask for.

Liz: New York Books Through Bars sends books to as many prisoners as they can. I spoke to a couple of volunteers about their experiences.

Beena: My name is Beena and I’ve been with Books Through Bars for about three years maybe four. I’m a bottom liner and also on our board because we’re a non-profit as of this year.

Daniel: My name is Daniel McGowan. I was incarcerated for seven years. At one point I got transferred to this pretty horrible place. It was called the communication management unit. And I had been in general population so I was pretty annoyed to show up at this space and within like maybe three days I had a package from Books Through Bars and it was really kind of made me laugh because clearly someone back home one of the people that worked there knew that I was transferred. I knew that probably would be a good time to shoot a package of books there. So I remember getting called out like three days after I got there all with a package and I was these are really good books. One of the books one of the authors I really like is Dave Eggers and I think it was one of his books that just came out at the time. So I was really excited about that. And I remember thinking to myself I really need to hook up with these folks when I get out. Obviously being a recipient but also just thinking it’s such a good work after seeing how bad prison libraries are is really important. Got out 2012 2013 and then I pretty much been volunteering. It’s about 2014 or 15 on.

Liz: Volunteers put a lot of thought and energy into picking the right books

Beena: Even while someone might ask for sort of something like sort of an action thriller genre, there’s ways to provide something that’s action thriller but also has a sort of mind opening function.

Daniel: You know you’re asking for James Patterson you’re good at and Raymond Chandler you’re asking for this you’re going to give a classic. Oh you’re in the shu or you’re going to get crime and punishment, you’re gonna get Shantaram, you’re going to get the fattest book that I can possibly find.

Beena: You’re not just sweeping the floor and you know doing sort of very mundane boring tasks but you’re actually responding to people’s letters and filling requests and finding books on the shelves that try to match those requests as best as they can. And so I got kind of hooked and I think that’s sort of many of our stories of how we become volunteers.

Liz: The folks they work with really appreciate the support. Beena and Daniel shared a couple of letters with me.

Beena (Reading letter): Dear friends at Books Through Bars. I have received a few books from you last spring and they were very appreciated. I hope it’s not too much to ask for some more as I’m concentrating more on studying languages and working on translations. I would like to ask you to find me some dictionaries if possible Russian to English, Spanish and English, and Hebrew and English. If you have some old magazines, off mainstream progressive Marxist socialist modern art oriented as well as publications of that fashion it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you very much. Let the spirit of the history be with you.

Daniel (Reading letter): I read in the prison Activist Resource Center guide your generous program sending books to prisoners. If you can send me anything with Disney characters and or nature pictures for acrylic / oil painting. Also if you happen to have anything on learning a foreign language I would greatly appreciate it. Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you. My address is below and also need an invoice or receipt in order to receive the books.

Liz: At the end there he mentioned needing a receipt. That’s just one of many arbitrary rules Books Through Bars volunteers have to navigate.

Beena: We have a few states that have really extreme censorship. They basically have a banned book list. Texas has one. Florida, I’m aware is another. For example in Texas it’s very hard to send drawing books because that might include nudity and that is something that Texas pretty much bans. They also don’t like books on electricity or masonry but also been told by other groups that they’re aware of books even by say Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn being bounced at certain facilities.

Liz: Despite these obstacles, they manage to send books to 40 different states. Here in New York they’ve recently faced a new and frustrating limitations.

Beena: Directive #4911A

Liz: This policy limited the vendors allowed to send books and other items like food and clothing. The designated vendors offered a very small number of items at a high price. This policy prevented anything used from being mailed into prison. This policy didn’t just affect books through bars. Families also faced these roadblocks.

Beena: What’s really lost in this is just how little access to resources people who we’re working with have as well as their families the burden on their families to try to send basic essential necessities.

Liz: After a postcard and call in campaign, this new policy was repelled. But activists are concerned that the Department of Corrections will come back with a revised policy in the future. Despite all the challenges, they’re not giving up anytime soon. Daniel sees this work as part of larger struggle.

Daniel: I think this is a concrete project that makes us feel like we’re getting somewhere because it might be just one person. But it’s like change doesn’t happen. You know it happens a person all the time sometimes you know. And I think that a lot of these people are getting out. And I hope to think that that impact that our sending books to them has on them when they get out and not only just paying it forward but just recognizing like sometimes our letters are like wow I can’t believe this people in the world that actually would send a stranger a book like that very bare thing just blows people’s minds.

To get the names, stories, and addresses of political prisoners, go to nycabc.wordpress.com or attend an Anarchist Black Cross meeting. If there’s not already chapter of ABC in your area, consider starting your own letter writing night. For information on sending books to prisoners, go to booksthroughbarsnyc.org. Check out the notes to this episode on rebelsteps.com for more resources.

You’ve been listening to Rebel Steps, I’m your host Liz. Believe in yourself, trust one another, and get organized.

This episode was written, edited, and produced by Amy and myself. Music for the this episode was kindly gifted to us by Sephy and also includes a few songs that I created. Special thanks to our interviewees, John, Beena, and Daniel and their organizations.