Activism for Introverts: Become a Penpal with an Incarcerated Person

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.

Why?

By Why? I mean a couple of different things:

Why is writing to an incarcerated person a powerful act? And 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 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:

I initially signed up to be a pen pal through Beyond These Walls because it works with prisoners based in the Pacific Northwest, where I live.

Recently, I heard that Abolition Apostles has an urgent need for more volunteer pen-pals so I have also signed up through that organization which was a very easy process (note, this organization is a Christian ministry but it is not necessary to be Christian or otherwise religious to be a pen-pal through their program).

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.

Establish Expectations

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.

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:

Additional Reading & Resources

Slowly at first, then all at once

Have you ever fallen in love and, if so, would you be able to tell me exactly, if I were to inquire, how it had happened?

It’s been more than a year and I still don’t know–I couldn’t tell you–how I became a vegan.

I still don’t know so many things.

I like to believe that I am an autonomous protagonist in my life, that I make conscious and purposeful decisions, and act with at least a degree of intentionality at all times. But there are certain experiences, events and transformations that feel less like decisions or conscious choices and more like something that happened to me, almost against my will or awareness in the moment.

It seems as though the most momentous, meaningful, life-altering experiences are something that happen to us, rather than something we intentionally, preemptively or methodically set about to make happen.

 

The most momentous, meaningful, life-altering experiences are something that happen to us, rather than something we intentionally or methodically set about to make happen.

I fell in love with the man who would become my husband instantly and overwhelmingly, but it was in no way a conscious, deliberate or particularly informed decision. (I wonder, even, if there’s a correlation between falling in love and an absence of what will inevitably become the most critical and meaningful information about a person in your actual, lived, life together.)

I know why I love him and can list every wonderful thing about him, but I couldn’t tell you how it happened. Though studies show that a heady combination of chemical reactions between pair-bonding endorphins, and socially bureaucratic rules and conventions, were largely at play when I first met Ian, I didn’t experience it that way from moment to moment. Though somebody, somewhere, can no doubt provide a logical and fact-based account of what happened, I personally can offer no such explanation. To me, it just

happened.

I don’t know how.

Similarly, I didn’t choose to be a writer, but rather feel as though writing is something that chose me. Though I have regrettably spent the vast majority of my life not writing–and have even actively tried to disentangle my sense of self as being a writer because it hurts so much to realize that you’re not actually being the person you claim to be–I cannot remember a time when I have not identified and moved through the world with the deep sense that I simply am a writer.

Becoming a writer was not an active (or, again, a particularly informed) decision. Rather, it’s something that must have come into being and taken root within me–passively, invisibly–at some point in my childhood or early teenage years. I wonder, sometimes, if I was simply born this way, as though being a writer is less a professional decision and more akin to sexual or gender identity that just is.

Though being a writer (or indeed being married or being a vegan) is something that I must choose and choose and choose again on an ongoing basis, I don’t remember there being an original moment of first choosing it all those years ago. It just

happened.

I don’t know how.

I still don’t know so many things.

I don’t even know if it has, in fact, been more than a year since I became a vegan.

All love stories are tales of beginnings.

“All love stories are tales of beginnings,” says the poet and essayist, Meghan O’Rourke. “When we talk about falling in love, we go to the beginning, to pinpoint the moment of freefall.”

Nobody ever asks, “how did you fall in love?” It’s too large and endless a question. Instead, we ask, “how did you guys meet?” By which we mean, when? By which we mean, where? By which we mean: Tell me a story. Transform amorphous, ineffable experience into a narrative that begins Once upon a time….

When it comes to becoming vegan, however, I don’t know when or where to count back to.

Or forward from….

It occurs to me, just now, that I was born a vegan, nursing only on my mother’s milk, which she longed and consented to give to me. I never thought of it that way before just now.

And now a part of a poem, unbidden, comes to mind–‘Trances Of The Blast,’ by Mary Ruefle:

At one time
Now it is another time
How near we were to having thoughts

That’s sort of what it’s like. Becoming a vegan. Becoming a completely different person.

At one time
Now it is another time

Except it’s not as distinct and definitive as that. At least it wasn’t for me. Some people hear the truth, open their eyes, and become vegan overnight, but for me it wasn’t like that.

Like falling in love, I became vegan the way a character in a Hemingway novel became bankrupt: “gradually and then suddenly.” Incrementally. Imperceptibly. Slowly at first, then all at once.

At one time
Now it is another time
At one time
Now it is another time
At one time
Now it is another time
At one time
Now it is another time

With long pauses

and blank spaces

in between

where I was so near

so close

to having

thoughts.

How near we are today.

That’s the next line in the poem:

How near we were to having thoughts
How near we are today

But was I really born a vegan?

A baby’s palate and food memories are shaped before birth. Before we can speak, before we can think, before we are ever pushed blinking and screaming into the system, we are floating in it. In the womb, we are buoyed by and gulp down amniotic fluid, flavored by the food and drinks consumed by our mother, be it broccoli, vanilla, tangerines, or chocolate.

Before we can speak, before we can think, before we are ever pushed blinking and screaming into the system, we are floating in it.

Now (another time) she can’t stand the smell of the stuff but, when she was pregnant with me (at one time), my mother craved Bovril, a thick and salty meat extract paste that can be added to soups and stews, spread on toast, or diluted with hot water, which is what my mother did, apparently drinking buckets of the coffee/tea alternative that then passed through to me without my awareness or comprehension.

So it began. And so it continued in one insidious way after another, spoonfed the system without my awareness or comprehension. I wasn’t born a vegan, romantic and utopian as the idea may briefly have been. Though quite innocent and without a conscious shred of malice or cruelty, I was nonetheless created and came into being within a system of violence that was as soothing and safe-seeming as the warm waters I floated in, as natural and delicious as my mother’s milk, as invisible and reflexive as those first deep gulps of oxygen.

Believe me, I don’t particularly want to, but these are the kinds of things I think about now, as I struggle to figure out the system behind and beneath it all. Because the real question–the thing that keeps me up at night, every night–isn’t how I personally, individually became a vegan, but how and why all us of are born and bred into a system of suffering, normalized violence and inexcusable exploitation of living, breathing beings.

Living, breathing beings who–just like me–are created and born into this world as tiny babies to the very same system of violence. When my mother weaned me from her own breast, and for decades later, I drank the milk of a mother whose baby had been taken from her and either slaughtered at just a few weeks old, if male, or plugged back into the same relentless cycle of breeding, birthing, and stealing that is the dairy industry, if female. It keeps me awake at night. It keeps me awake.

But it’s not the night right now. I’ll save those thoughts and questions for another time and, while it’s still light out and the sun is singing through western windows, I’ll think instead about  falling in love.

Though science confirms that falling in love is a largely chemical affair, and definitely not something as silly and unsubstantiated as destiny, romantic love often has a sense of destiny about it (unlike our relationships with family and friends–though I do have one or two friendships that feel nothing less than fated, no matter what scientists might say).

On the one hand, we experience falling in love as spontaneous and surprising–we’re often caught off guard and feel out of control when we realize we’re falling so hard for this person–yet, at the same time, there’s a sense of calm inevitability about it, as though this was meant to happen, or that everything that has come before now–both the good and the bad, all of it–has been leading us to this point and person in time. 

We experience falling in love as spontaneous and surprising, but at the same time there’s a sense of calm inevitability about it.

Like falling in love, becoming vegan has the same sense of inevitability. It might not be true to say that I was born a vegan, and in fact I tremble knowing that it was statistically more likely that I would not open my mind and heart to reality, I do believe that I was born with the same compassion and kindness that I have finally, thankfully, learned to extend to every animal that I share this horrible, wonderful planet with.

And though I don’t believe in destiny as such, I still have this sense that I’ve become the person that I was always supposed to be before I wandered–if not against my will but certainly against my awareness–and became separated from my true, compassionate and justice-minded self that has always burned so strong inside me.

When I think about the harm and suffering I’ve played a part in in my almost four decades on this planet, I wish I’d gotten here so much sooner, but I try not to dwell on who I’ve been and instead feel thankful for who I’m becoming and, frankly, amazed and relieved that I’ve somehow learned something on this earth that I was meant to learn or put here to learn. Destined or not, everything that has come before now has lead me–slowly, then all at once–to this point and person in time, and for that I am so eternally grateful and filled with nothing less than pure love.