A guide to providing support to prisoners in UK jails, from letter-writing and visits to sending reading materials and more.
Adopt a prisoner
If you’re active in a group or campaign why not choose one or two prisoners to consistently support. Pass cards round meetings, send useful stuff, knock up a flyposter and get their case some publicity if they could use it, get in touch with the prisoner’s support group if there is one. Of course you can take this on as an individual, too.
Since practice and procedure varies considerably from prison to prison and is liable to change in each prison, it is impossible to provide a template of procedures that will cover all cases. What can be done from experience is to put down a few pointers and pose a set of questions that those undertaking the support will need to address.
Firstly, it may be necessary to find out what the prison rules are about:
:> What can and cannot be sent in
:> What the scope is for the prisoner to communicate outwards
:> Arrangements for release and travel warrants.
If things are reasonable the prisoner will be able to get that information to you but you can also phone the prison and ask. There is no harm in developing contacts within the prison officialdom as that may have long term benefits.
Writing to prisoners/sending things
Prison is isolation, so contact with the outside world, letting a prisoner know s/he is not forgotten, helps break this down. Sometimes just a friendly card can boost their morale. Writing for the first time to a complete stranger can be awkward. A card with some well wishes, a bit about who you are and asking what you can do to help is often enough. Don’t expect prisoners to write back. Sometimes, the number of letters they can receive/write is restricted, or they just might not be very good a writing back. To help, include a couple of stamps or, if writing abroad, International Reply Coupons (IRC’s) that you can get from any post office. Write on clean paper and don’t re-use envelopes. Remember a return address, also on the envelope.
Ask what the prisoner can have sent to them, as this varies from prison to prison. Books and pamphlets usually have to be sent from a recognised distributor/bookshop/publisher (ask at a friendly bookshop). Tapes, videos, writing pads, zines, toiletries and postal orders are some of the things you might be able to send. Newspapers can often be provided (usually by a local newsagent recognised by the prison). Food just gets eaten by screws.
Remember that all letters are opened and looked through so don’t write stuff that could endanger anyone – this doesn’t mean you should be over paranoid and write one meaningless comment on the weather after the other. Be prepared to share a bit of your life to brighten up someone’s on the inside.
e.g. We received a letter from Herman Wallace, after sending him a card from the group. He said:
It is quite essential that I take out a moment to express my gratitude to all the wonderful folk who sent me so much love & support in this one card. I am really touched by the intensity of energy from this card and I just had to stand up from my seat and smile. Thankyou. Right now, in spite of my repressive condition you guys have made me feel GREAT!
Petitioning Tony Blair asking him to stop being a capitalist bastard might well be futile. But writing letters to relevant places requesting something realistic such as an appeal, transfer, vegan food etc on behalf of a prisoner can help improve their chances. Prisoners who seem to be ‘in the public eye’ do tend to be treated better.
Remember too that each prison will have a Visiting Committee and at least one Chaplain, plus a Quaker visitor. These can be most useful allies in getting over any communication difficulties and helping if there are problems. The prison will provide you with names and contacts.
There is so much more than can be done, up to you and your imagination and your contact with a prisoner, such as publicity for their case, financial support, pickets of prisons, helping them get a mobile phone, any legal support issues to be dealt with, such as getting documents, research, liaison with lawyers etc.…
Edited and added to by libcom.org from two articles from the UHC Collective website. Last reviewed 2006