Writing to an incarcerated person is a powerful act of solidarity that perceives the humanity of people on the inside of the prison industrial complex. Letter writing also offers introverts a meaningful, consistent action that makes a difference and suits our personality type.
“And maybe there are small cracks in our walls and we start to see a sliver of light shine through in each other” ― Yusef Salaam, Punching the Air
Activism Is Consistent Action
Recently I came across the work of Omkari Williams, whose conception of activism really resonated with me. She says:
My definition of activism probably isn’t the one you’re going to find in the dictionary. For me being an activist means that you are someone who takes consistent action….to advance a cause that you are passionate about. For me the size of the action isn’t the point, what matters is that you are regularly taking action to make a difference.Omkari Williams
Sometimes, the actions I take on issues or causes close to my heart feel somewhat sporadic, haphazard, and not at all consistent.
A natural introvert, living with anxiety and depression, makes me…well…pretty fookin’ flaky to be perfectly honest. I not only have a tendency to cancel plans with friends at the last minute; I’ve also signed up for interactive activist events with the best of intentions but ultimately haven’t followed through.
I love the idea of “consistent action”, but I find it challenging to authentically commit to practices that I can meaningfully incorporate into my life and are more suited to my personality type.
The only form of activism that feels truly consistent and completely integrated into my day-to-day life is being vegan. Three times a day, at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I boycott the oppression and exploitation of non-human animals. Whether I’m brushing my teeth with cruelty-free toothpaste or shopping for a pair of shoes that haven’t been made from a living being’s skin, I am consistently committed to my values of compassion, justice and non-violence for all.
It wasn’t always this way, however. Though my consciousness had been raised to this form of injustice, it took some time for me to change my consumption habits and consistently refuse to fund or knowingly contribute to the oppression of non-human animals.
These days, being vegan is as unconscious and automatic as breathing. But this now consistent action didn’t happen overnight. It helps to remember this when nurturing any new practice, but particularly when it comes to taking action on other issues that I care about but am less certain as to how I can personally show up on a regular and authentic basis.
A year into the pandemic, (outside of my job) the only thing I do on a regular basis is reading, gardening, embroidery, and writing letters and postcards to family in Ireland and friends all over. As a child I had many penpals, and my love of letter writing has continued into adulthood, especially since I moved to the United States.
With all of this in mind–my introverted nature, my desire to take consistent action on issues that I care about, and my existing love of letter writing–I started researching how to become a penpal with an incarcerated person, i.e. a person on the literal inside of the prison industrial complex.
What is the Prison Industrial Complex?
The Prison Industrial Complex is a multifaceted, for-profit system and an intrinsic component of white supremacy and institutionalized racism.
Mariame Kaba (aka @PrisonCulture on Twitter) has been the source of most everything I’ve come to know about the Prison Industrial Complex. She presents several definitions of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) on her website, including the following:
“The prison industrial complex is a system situated at the intersection of government and private interests. It uses prisons as a solution to social, political and economic problems. It includes human rights violations, the death penalty, slave labor, policing, courts, the media, political prisoners and the elimination of dissent.”Huey Freeman
CARA (Communities Against Rape and Abuse) explains that the PIC is “a massive multi-billion dollar industry that promotes the exponential expansion of prisons, jails, immigrant detention centers, and juvenile detention centers. The PIC is represented by corporations that profit from incarceration, politicians who target people of color so that they appear to be “tough on crime,” and the media that represents a slanted view of how crime looks in our communities.”
“In order to survive,” says CARA, “the PIC uses propaganda to convince the public how much we need prisons; uses public support to strengthen harmful law-and-order agendas such as the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terrorism”; uses these agendas to justify imprisoning disenfranchised people of color, poor people, and people with disabilities; leverages the resulting increasing rate of incarceration for prison-related corporate investments (construction, maintenance, goods and services); pockets the profit; and uses profit to create more propaganda.”
The very existence of the prison forecloses the kinds of discussions that we need in order to imagine the possibility of eradicating these behaviors.
Just send them to prison. Just keep on sending them to prison. Then of course, in prison they find themselves within a violent institution that reproduces violence.Angela Davis, Freedom Is A Constant Struggle
A State of Mind
In a 1998 article in The Atlantic, Eric Schlosser states that the prison-industrial complex (PIC) is not only a set of interest groups and institutions: it is also a state of mind.
We are all inside the prison industrial complex.
This is what I’ve come to understand. The most marginalized and oppressed are on the literal inside, but all of us are socialized and inculcated within this violent, cynical and exploitative system. The most marginalized and oppressed are both physically and mentally policed, but all of us have unwittingly–and uncritically–accepted the curtailing of our values and the policing of our imaginations.
Says Mariame Kaba:
Have people been offered a vision of public safety that doesn’t include police? If not, why not? The fact that police abolition is unthinkable to so many people is profoundly dangerous. It means that police have so thoroughly colonized and dominated our thinking that we are unable to even imagine a world where they don’t exist. The fact is that we haven’t always had police. What makes us believe that we always will–or that we always will have to?To Stop Police Violence, We Need Better Questions–and Bigger Demands
Breaking free from limited–and limiting–thinking is challenging, especially when it comes to violence and oppression that is so normalized as to appear natural and valuable as well as inevitable. But it is possible.
Another world is possible. Another way of relating to each other is possible. Part of that process is recognizing the reality and humanity of incarcerated people on the literal inside of the prison industrial complex. Writing to an incarcerated person is an affirmative act of solidarity and recognition that may seem like a small act but is in fact quite powerful.
By Why? I mean a couple of different things:
Why is writing to an incarcerated person a powerful act? And, secondly, why (fellow introverts) do you want to do this–what’s your motivation?
Why Write To An Incarcerated Person?
As Heather Mytelka explains in her invaluable Resource for Writing to Incarcerated People, writing to an incarcerated person is a way to resist and reject the carceral state’s reliance on isolation as a tool for oppression.
“Letter writing can be a form of harm reduction,” says Mytelka, and is often “a lifeline for imprisoned people–especially queer, trans, and gender non-conforming people and those living with HIV/AIDS, who are more likely to experience violence and solitary confinement.”
While fighting to abolish the prison industrial complex, we can’t forget to reaffirm the humanity on the inside. We must work to develop empathy and understanding for people impacted by mass criminalization and center our actions and writings on their voices. By strengthening our connection to incarcerated people we can uplift incarcerated leadership, learn from their experiences, and engage with abolition in a meaningful way.
Heather Mytelka, Resources for Writing to Incarcerated People
Writing a letter to an incarcerated person is meaningful for the same reasons writing a letter to any person is meaningful.
In the age of social media and instant text messages, there is something deeply personal and powerful about sending or receiving a letter. Letters take time, thought and a little extra effort to compose and mail. Taking the time to put pen to paper and stock up on stamps demonstrates genuine care and interest.
Letters are tactile artifacts designed to be held in human hands. The physicality of a handwritten message on a piece of paper conveys not only words but a sensory trace of the person whose hands moved across the page, folded it in half, and carried the envelope in their purse or coat pocket to the mail box or post office on a sunny or snowy day.
Always, but especially now with COVID-19 putting a halt to in-person visitations, letters are a literal lifeline for people in prison. Writing a letter to–or receiving a letter from–an incarcerated person allows two human beings to physically connect in some small way across space and time. When the prison industrial complex relies on dehumanization to legitimize its existence, this seemingly simple act is in fact one of transgression and refusal to curtail and withhold our compassion.
Why Do You Want To Write To An Incarcerated Person?
Introverts, in case it’s not clear: this post is not a pop-mag listicle of “101 Hobbies for the Socially Awkward!”
If you’re in search of a past-time in line with your personality, that’s totally fine and I fully understand: but please don’t use incarcerated people as a hobby or vehicle for your introversion.
If all you want is a penpal but you’re not interested in grappling with the wider issues or working on transforming your conception of justice, I suggest you look elsewhere for someone to write to. I don’t mean to be rude, and perhaps this all goes without saying, but I think it’s important to interrogate our intentions and understand what’s motivating us to write to an incarcerated person.
Too, for those who want to write to an incarcerated person as a form of activism, I think there is an equal risk of objectifying people, using them as a means to an end, or relating to them purely as a tool for our own ‘activist’ purposes. Not only is this patronizing and self-serving, it centers our own ego at the cost of someone else’s humanity.
Writing letters to incarcerated people can be a meaningful act of solidarity, but should neither be a mere hobby or an act of charity.
Writing letters to incarcerated people can be a meaningful act of solidarity, but should neither be a mere hobby or an act of charity. I encourage you (and myself!) to learn the ongoing history of incarceration, criminalization, systemic racism, and the prison industrial complex.
Think about the ways that you–which is to say I, which is to say all us of–have personally bought into and perpetuated the idea of policing and prisons as an unavoidable and ‘safest’ solution.
Having said all that, introversion is a real thing and not all of us can (ever or always) participate in traditional forms of direct action. Like Omkari Williams said, the size of the action isn’t important, what matters is that we are regularly taking action to make a difference.
Writing to an incarcerated person can be a meaningful act of solidarity and interconnection that also satisfies an introvert’s real need for time spent alone in silence, reflection or creativity.
(Introverts should bear in mind the privilege inherent in choosing when and whether to be alone or in a group. Neither those who are crammed into appallingly overcrowded prisons or those who are punished in the physical and mental torture that is solitary confinement have the luxury of such autonomy.)
So, what does writing to an incarcerated person look like exactly? And how do you find a person to write to?
I wanted my letters to be a familiar voice in a new city, a blues song replayed in a strange village. On occasion, I sent and received letters from friends in prison. They liked to call letters kites. For them, ink and blank pages were at a high premium. Their letters were usually full of promises, epiphanies, and requests for poetry. I would return their kites with shout-outs from the city. Here, I would say, fly the kite for a day, if not your full sentence. -Willy Perdomo
Find A Person To Write To
On her list of 9 Solidarity Commitments to/with Incarcerated People for 2021, Mariame Kaba advocates writing at least six letters to an incarcerated person this year. I encourage you to read the full list, which offers many valuable insights and calls to action, as well as suggestions for finding people to write to:
- Survived and Punished: Letter Writing Action
- Black and Pink Penpals
- NYC Anarchist Black Cross
- Abolition Apostles Penpal Program
- Beyond These Walls
- Death Row Support Project
- Lifelines to Solitary: Direct Outreach to People in Solitary Confinement
- Sick of It! A Disability Inside/Outside Project
- Midwest Trans Prisoner Pen Pal Project
I initially signed up to be a pen pal through Beyond These Walls because it works with incarcerated people based in the Pacific Northwest, where I live.
Soon after, I heard that Abolition Apostles had an urgent need for more volunteer pen-pals so I also signed up through that organization which was a very easy process.
[2022 Update: Abolition Apostles has gone through a period of turmoil and transition, but the current organization remains committed to connecting incarcerated people with pen friends on the outside. On a personal note, I am still happily writing to three penpals that I was matched with through the organization, so I’m glad I came to Abolition Apostles despite the events that unfolded this year (for want of a better word).]
Heather Mytelka’s Resource for Writing to Incarcerated People contain’s state-specific resources and links for certain kinds of incarcerated people, such as immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ+ people, political prisoners, and more.
How To Write To A Person In Prison
Once you’ve found a person to write to, here are some things to think about before taking pen to paper.
It can be genuinely heart-breaking for a person on the inside when their new pen pal loses interest after a short time. For this reason, several organizations I reviewed requested a minimum time commitment (typically one year, though not always).
As Heather Mytelka explains, writing to an incarcerated person can take several forms:
An ongoing letter exchange can take the form of friendship, mentorship, offering support, collaboration, journaling–just make your intentions clear and invite conversation.
If you don’t have the capacity for an ongoing letter exchange, write a general letter of support to an incarcerated person. A one-time letter sharing words of encouragement, poem excerpts, supportive messages, drawings, or general support can all make a positive impact on the mental health and well-being of someone on the inside.
Sister Helen Prejean’s tips for writing to people in prison also emphasizes the importance of making your intentions clear upfront: “If you just want to send a one-off note of support, make that clear so you don’t raise expectations – you could include something like “No need to respond, I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you.”
There’s no right or wrong way to do this–a one-time letter of support is absolutely fine. It’s just important to take some time to set intentions and reflect upon your motivations and capacity before signing up to be a pen pal.
Personally, I’ve found that setting expectations is not a one-time conversation. Ongoing open and candid communication is key.
Earlier this year, I went through an extended period of depression and was literally unable to write to my penpals as frequently as I had been. Unfortunately, I also felt ill-equipped to explain what I was going through and let a couple of months fly by without sending any letters. One person in particular felt quite disappointed and let down. Although I understand what I was going through was very real, I also understand that even a little communication on my end could have avoided some hurt and confusion. It was a good lesson learned and working things out with him actually made the friendship stronger, but I would do things differently if I could go back.
Ensure Your Letter Reaches Its Destination
Though it may be frustrating for all concerned, it’s important to follow the prison’s rules so that your letter is actually delivered to the person you’re writing to.
Every state has its own rules about writing to prisoners, so make sure to do some independent research before sealing the envelope. Most of these rules would never have occurred to me in a million years and are just further proof of how arbitrarily punitive the system is. Regardless, here are some almost universal requirements/guidelines according to Sister Prejean:
- Address your letter correctly, making sure to include the prisoner number.
- Write your name and address both on the envelope and on the enclosed letter.
- Do not enclose anything with your card or letter unless it complies with the prison’s guidelines. Usually, a photo or a news clipping is acceptable, but nothing else is, including stamps. The best approach is to send nothing but your letter the first time and ask your correspondent what is and isn’t acceptable in their prison.
- Don’t use scented stationery or attach stickers or glitter. It’s surprising the sort of things that can prevent your letter from being delivered.
- If you want to send a book or stationery to a prisoner, do not send it directly. Instead, purchase the item from an established bookstore and have them send it to the prisoner. Many small bookstores, unfortunately, do not mail goods to prisons, but Barnes and Noble and Powell’s Books do. [NOTE: Because Amazon no longer includes receipts in all the packages it sends, do not use Amazon. Most prisons require that a receipt accompanies the book and books mailed from Amazon often get returned.]
- Do not send hardback books or ring-bound books. These get treated as if they are weapons!
- Your correspondence may be opened by the prison. Don’t say anything that could cause repercussions for your correspondent, such as disparaging remarks about prison officials. Sexual or violent content is likely to prevent your letter from being delivered.
Heather Mytelka’s list of Do’s & Don’ts is also very helpful. For instance: DO be authentic and mindful of possible language barriers and mixed literacy levels. DON’T treat writing as an act of charity or speak down to incarcerated people.
I also found the following resources super helpful when starting my own research:
- Sending Books, Letters and Photos to an Inmate: What You Need to Know
- Thought to Consider When Writing to Someone Who is Incarcerated
- Guide to Writing Letters to Incarcerated Survivors
- SxHx’s List of Best Practices and Learned Lessons
- IMailToPrison.com’s Prison Book Distributor’s list of rules and guidelines for all 50 U.S. State’s Prisons
Additional Reading & Resources
- Prison Abolition Syllabus by Black Perspectives
- We Do This ‘Til We Free Us by Mariame Kaba
- Let This Radicalize You by Kelly Hayes and Mariame Kaba
- No More Police: A Case For Abolition by Mariame Kaba and Andrea J. Ritchie
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
- Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex by Angela Davis