This is a revamp of a guide I put together years ago. If anyone has any updates or changes please email me!
Writing political prisoners is an important way of lending support to folks incarcerated due to their beliefs. There are many types of political prisoners on the left – animal liberation, earth liberation/environmental, black Panthers/liberation, indigenous movements, anarchists, marxists, etc. Incarceration is isolating and difficult. Letters are something that can help bolster spirits of those inside.
Here are some tips:
A Few Do’s and Don’ts in Correspondence
A few dos and don’ts on writing prisoners whose backgrounds/politics you may not know.
Do use common sense. Use a “neutral” address for yourself, such as a Post Office Box, for correspondence.
Do not divulge sensitive personal information (i.e. your home address, phone number, credit card and bank details, people’s full names, etc. ) to a prisoner, particularly one you have never dealt with before. This is for your security and that of the prisoner. Be aware that authorities often read these letters and sensitive information can get into the wrong hands. Occasionally, prisoners have misused this information as well.
Do not send money or honor immediate requests for money.
Do think ahead. Research local prison regulations. Learn about the prisoner before writing. Make sure to put a return address on your envelope. When first writing to an incarcerated person make sure you ask them specifically what the rules are for writing letters, and make a careful note of them. No one under eighteen years of age should be writing a prisoner — again, this is for the prisoner’s security as well as the writer’s.
Do be forward and clear in your letter as well as your intentions. Say who you are, and if it’s relevant that you’re with an organization. Be upfront about your politics and say where you heard about the prisoners and her/his case. If you are interested in starting a pen-pal relationship and that is all, say so. Ask if they would like to correspond and if they’d like to discuss any topics, as well as what topics they don’t wish to discuss. Keep your first letter reasonably short and to the point.
Do be patient. Prisoners may not write back or may take awhile. They may occasionally sound cynical, angry or disinterested in their words — keep in mind many “supporters” or people who’ve written before may have stopped writing them, made promises/lied to them, or they just had a rough day and they’re venting that on paper. Responding to an angry letter with more anger is not helpful.
Do deal with the right channels. If a prisoner wants you to send a book, ask what channels their institution requires for that, or refer them to a Book-to-Prisoners project near their unit. If a prisoner is getting out in the next few weeks, do not offer your place to stay (no matter how desperate they sound) unless you have corresponded for a significant amount of time and are in contact with both a parole officer and a prison intermediary (e.g. prison chaplain). Even in cases like this, it is far more helpful to a prisoner to help them secure employment and develop a support base (whether that is through her/his church/mosque, family, friends, etc. ) than to Chances are, there’s a legal process to be dealt with in cases like this and they need to be followed by both you and the prisoner. However, use your head and don’t land in a bad situation or one that will land the prisoner back in jail.
Do not make promises. Many well-meaning people write letters offering support to a prisoner, or make offers for help out of good will. Unfortunately, most never follow through and build false hope in a prisoner. This is not fair to them. If you’re writing, don’t make promises. Don’t offer to do a support campaign if you can’t make that time.
Don’t offer to send items when you can’t afford it. Be honest. It’s best to start writing and keep it that way, at least until a relationship is established.
Do not romanticize prisons or prisoners. Many activists have ideas about who prisoners are, why they’re locked up, the system, etc. While it’s correct to have political clarity about incarceration and the nature of the criminal justice system, it is not correct to romanticize a prisoner, anything they might be locked up for (especially a “social crime”) and their lives. They’re people just like you, and have strengths and weaknesses. It is dangerous to assume that anyone (free or jailed) is able to overcome all their personal weaknesses, or be completely truthful, or are not dealing with the stressful situation they’re in in negative ways. Some are estranged from their families as a direct result of their own actions. Some may have learned manipulative behaviors over the years. Prisoners are people like you.
Do not discuss potentially illegal political action with a prisoner. Again, this is for your security and theirs. Prisoners have and can be implicated for outside action that violates the law and you should be mindful that, if authorities even find such information in the hands of prisoners, prisoners can face added time and harsh treatment.
Do not attempt to place political judgments on prisoners’ experiences. Some prisoners, out of desperation, write publications to get pen pals and may not agree completely with the views of the paper, but read it for information. Some prisoners have been converted to Christianity or are Muslims. Some have views that may be somewhat backward. Rather than attack a prisoner, it’s best to be polite, but firm, if there’s something you’d rather not discuss or find objectionable.
Do not attack or insult a prisoner because of their religions, preferences or experiences. If the prisoner declares her/himself a white supremacist, you are well within your rights to explain your disagreements, encourage them to reconsider their views and discontinue the relationship; please be aware that several white supremacist gangs have ties to the outside from prison and it is smart not to get into insults or threats against such prisoners.
Don’t send literature unless requested and be aware you don’t have to go with every request.
Here is a great resource from February of 2017 from the New York City Anarchist Black Cross that gives you background on various political prisoners and how to write them: https://animalliberationpressoffice.org/NAALPO/2017/03/13/u-s-political-prisoner-and-prisoner-of-war-listing/
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