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.
Other countries have their own rules, so check with the prisoner themselves before trying to send anything to them - it might be a waste of your money and could, if what you send is considered to be contraband, have adverse effects on the prisoner themselves.
There is also a prisoner e-mailing service www.emailaprisoner.com, which now covers most prisons in the UK (check here for which nicks). It only costs 35p, cheaper than snail mail (though there is a 2500 characters and 50 lines maximum per message) and many prisons also allow you to pay 20p up front for the contactee to email you a reply (check here for those locations). Give it a try.
The same organisation also has a Secure Payment Services system as an alternate for sending money to prisoners. However, they charge a 20% fee for each transaction, so stick with the cheaper option of a cheque or the slightly more expensive (but more anonymous) option of a postal order [see above].
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.…
WRITE A LETTER
Writing a letter to a political prisoner or prisoner of war is a concrete way to support those imprisoned for their political struggles.
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.
Writing to prisoners is not charity, as we on the outside have as much to gain from these relationships as the prisoners. Knowing the importance of letter writing is crucial. Prisons are very lonely, isolating, and disconnected places. Any sort of bridge from the outside world is greatly appreciated.
With that in mind, avoid feeling intimidated, especially about writing to someone you do not know. And if possible try and be a consistent pen pal.
WHAT TO WRITE
For many, the first line of the first letter is difficult to write–there is uncertainty and intimidation that come with it. Never fret, it’s just a letter.
For the first letter, it’s best to offer an introduction, how you heard about the prisoner, a little about yourself. Tell stories, write about anything you are passionate about–movement work and community work are great topics until you have a sense of the prisoner’s interests outside of political organizing.
And what we hear from prisoners time and time again is to include detail. Prison is so total that the details of life on the outside become distant memories. Smells, textures, sounds of the street all get grayed out behind bars. That’s not to say that you should pen a stream-of-consciousness novel.
For things you should and should not remember when writing to folks, read GUIDELINES.
You cannot enclose glitter or write with glittery gel pens or puff paint pens. Some prisons do not allow cards or letters that include permanent marker, crayon, or colored pencils and it is best to check with the prisoner beforehand. That said, it is usually best to write in standard pencil or non-gel pen in blue or black ink.
You cannot include articles or anything else torn out of a newspaper or magazine. However, you can print that same article from the internet or photocopy it and write your letter on the other side.
You cannot include polaroid pictures (though these days, that’s not much of an issue), but you can include regular photographs. Some prisoners are limited to the number of photos they can have at any given time, so again, check with the prisoner before sending a stack of photos.
If mailing more than a letter, clearly write the contents of the envelope/package. Label it “CONTENTS” and include a full list.
A couple of technical details– make sure you include your return address inside the letter as well as on the envelope. It’s common for prisoners to receive letters without the envelope.
Make sure to paginate– number each page, such as 1 of 3, 2 of 3, et cetera. This insures that if pages of your letter don’t make it to the prisoner, they will know it.
Be careful about making promises and only commit to what you are certain you can do. This should go without saying, but it’s not a good idea to make commitments to someone you don’t have a relationship with. If you can’t maintain a correspondence, let them know up front. Conversely, if you want to maintain an ongoing correspondence, let them know that as well.
If you are writing to someone who is pre-trial, don’t ask questions about their case. Discussing what a prisoner is alleged to have done can easily come back to haunt them during their trial or negotiations leading up to it.
Don’t valorize the person you are writing. Keep in mind that these are folks coming from the same movements and communities that you are. They aren’t looking for adoration, but rather to maintain correspondence.
Finally, do not write anything you wouldn’t want Fox News, a cop, or a judge to see. Assume that intelligence and law enforcement agencies are reading your letter. On a related note, this advice goes for any snail mail, e-mail, texting, messaging, or talking that takes place in known activist spaces or homes. This is not legal advice, just basic movement survival common sense (to review, read STAYING SAFE).
You never have to, and it is never a good idea to talk to police, FBI, ICE, or any other law enforcement agent or investigator. Other than providing your name and address to a police officer who is investigating a crime, you never have to talk. You will not outsmart them by talking or sound less suspicious by talking or make things easier for yourself by talking. Anything you say will be used against you and others. If they catch you in a lie or inconsistency they can charge you with a separate crime.
Say: I have nothing to say to you OR I need a lawyer present to continue this conversation. If they come to your home, workplace, or school, ask them for a card and tell them your attorney will be in contact with them.
The FBI may threaten you with a grand-jury subpoena for not talking. It doesn’t matter because they were probably going to subpoena you anyway and you weren’t going to talk anyway.
If you receive a grand jury subpoena you should contact a lawyer immediately and let others in your community know. People can be held for up to 18 months (potentially longer) for refusing to talk to grand juries. Even so, for our own survival, it is imperative that we take that risk and do not participate in grand juries as they are used to indict political prisoners and prisoners of war.
In the federal legal system, the grand jury is used to decide whether someone should be charged (“indicted”) for a serious crime. The grand jury hears evidence presented by the prosecutor: the U.S. Attorney. The grand jury uses subpoenas to gather this evidence. It can subpoena documents, physical evidence, and witnesses to testify. The “special” federal grand jury, created in 1970, can be used to investigate “possible” organized criminal activity rather than a specific crime.
Currently there is more than one active grand jury in new york city. There are also more than likely informants and agent provocateurs infiltrating anarchist communities here.
It is imperative that we continue our work as anarchists including the support of political prisoners and prisoners of war towards the abolition of the state, of capitalism, and of all oppression.
It is also imperative that we do so in a way that is smart, strategic, and sustainable.
Not too long ago we hosted a small letter writing night amongst friends. It wasn’t a public event, just friends getting together over some food and writing letters to our anarchist comrades who have been stolen by the State. While we’ve been in the thick of prisoner support work for more than ten years, it was a huge surprise to learn how many of our friends had never written someone inside prison. At all.
This got us thinking about how maybe there has been a shift of some kind amongst anarchists. We are meeting less and less anarchists who have made prisoner support an integral part of their revolutionary praxis. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water folks! Prisoner support is a vital part of our movements and our culture. When the State steals away one of our comrades it is paramount that we continue to engage with them, keeping them involved in our movement as much as possible. They’re inside there for us and we are outside for them. We have to mean this and we have to back it up.
We know that letters are an absolute lifeline for those held inside the cages. What fewer people anticipate is how much it benefits us out here to do this work. Being involved in prisoner support has greatly impacted the work that we do at It’s Going Down, in our cities and with our crews. Having relationships with people inside has strengthened our organizing capacities in ways we couldn’t have anticipated. Being connected to other anarchists engaged in prisoner support has also helped us in building strong relationships and networks across North America. Did we hard sell this enough to you yet?
We wanted to share some brief prisoner letter writing tips for getting started, borrowed from Water Protector Anti-Repression Crew and their tour zine The Frontlines Are Everywhere. We also encourage you to check out the NYC ABC Illustrated Guide to Political Prisoners & Prisoners of War for regularly updated prisoner listings. Gather up these tips, a copy of that guide, maybe a Political Prisoner Birthday Poster, make some cards, invite some friends over and write some letters together!
Getting Started and Keep Each Other Safe
Writing to prisoners is one of the most important aspects of support. Letters from relatives, comrades and new friends is a lifeline for those inside and provides connection to the outside world. One of the hardest things for many prisoners to cope with is the feeling of isolation – being cut off from friends and family and everything they know in their lives on the outside. Prison and jail are designed to be isolating, but communication from the outside can cut through isolation and remind those inside that they are never alone.
In many cases, contact from the outside lets the prison authorities know that there are people on the outside who care and are monitoring the situation. For example, religious freedoms and special dietary requirements (halal, kosher, vegan, etc) are more likely to be adhered to if a prisoner is obviously not forgotten.
Here are some important reminders for you prior to writing your letter to prisoners:
● Every letter is potentially read by the guards, so don’t write anything that might incriminate yourself or others. Do not write about illegal activities. The rule of thumb here is don’t put anything in a letter that you wouldn’t say to directly to the police.
● Remember that some prisoners are pre-trial, which means that beyond their mail be generally monitored, it can be entered into evidence against them.
● These are political prisoners and you should obviously let them know you support their politics, but don’t start praising them as heroes. “Hero letters,” can add to the State’s repressive tactics and help label people as “leaders.” If someone is caught up for a political action they probably don’t want to be seen as martyrs – they’re just normal people, so write to them like normal people rather than fawning! Human connection is more important than heroism.
● Don’t EVER promise things you can’t deliver. Whether you’re promising books, commissary money, et cetera – breaking promises to someone inside is not in line with supporting them.
● Political literature – be careful! Unless the prisoner asks for it, avoid sending any overly contentious political material in as it can potentially cause them issues with the prison. There’s no problem sending this kind of thing as long as you ask the prisoner first and always respect their wishes!
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some common questions people have about writing to those in prison or jail:
What should I write them?
Starting your first letter can feel difficult, especially if you are writing to someone you don’t already have a relationship with. You may be worried that what you write might sound stupid, or make the prisoner feel worse, or you simply can’t think of anything. Of course if the prisoner is your relative or friend then this part is easy, but what about a total stranger? You can simply start by telling them about yourself, what you do, what you’re into, where you got their address and so on. This breaks the ice and also make a reply easier. Apart from that, just fill a side of paper with whatever you can think of – a hike you took, a tender moment you saw at the park between a mother and child, the last movie you saw, or pretty much anything!
Most prisoners that we know have commented that while robust political discussions are great, so are letters about Harry Potter books or space exploration or poetry! The point being that these folks are dynamic humans with varied interests and parts of themselves they’d probably like to share while in a place that is designed to strip them of their humanity.
I’m not sure I can manage a full letter…
That is okay! A quick message of support on a postcard can still really brighten up someone’s day. Try taking a card to a meeting, a family gathering or a protest where everyone can sign it
How do I make sure my letter gets in?
Make sure to write the prisoner’s full name and prisoner ID number on the envelope. Put your name and address at the top of the letter and on the top left corner. You can use a pen name if you’ve got any reservations, but bear in mind this is what the prisoner will see if they’re going to write you a reply. Some prisons will refuse to accept letters with “care of‟ or PO Box addresses so it’s best to use a street address. Some prisons have rules forbidding certain imagery (e.g. gang symbols being banned from US prisons) and this may encompass political symbols as well. Different facilities have different rules, so call the prison or jail if you aren’t sure if something can be mailed in. Typically you cannot send pictures drawn with anything other than markers, Polaroid photos, or cards that have glue or glitter on them
What about getting a reply?
Remember that you’re doing this to support the prisoner, not to acquire a new pen-pal – although the two often go hand-in-hand! You may not get a reply for several reasons: obviously the prisoner might not have received your letter or they might be getting a lot of mail (if they’re fortunate enough), so they may not have time to reply to everyone. They may be limited in the number of letters they can write by the prison authorities and prefer to prioritize relatives and close friends. They may not have access to sufficient writing materials or stamps, they may have been moved, or they may simply not be very good at writing letters. Regardless, don’t be put out if there’s no reply and don’t let this deter you from continuing to write. Keep sending postcards and letters!
Can I send anything else in?
The golden rule here is to ask the prisoner if you’ve got any doubts. You can always try contacting the prison, asking to speak to the mail-room or an administrator about what items are approved by the facility. If you feel that the prison or jail staff is not being truthful or is misleading you, a common tactic of repression by the institution, ask if they have a copy of their inmate handbook or mail regulations for you to review. These are often available online, but not always. The rules vary widely between different prisons and are sometimes baffling or nonsensical.
If you send anything in, clearly write at the top of your letter what you’ve enclosed as this lessens the chances of guards taking items without the prisoners knowledge. Generally, books have to be from a publisher, although the guards get to decide which publishers are “legitimate.” Some people get around this by sending books from an Amazon account, which many guards accept as “legitimate.” Many prisoners have Amazon book wish lists that have been set up from which you can mail something directly. Guards may withhold some literature on the grounds of content, it all depends on which guard is looking through the mail any given day. Sometimes books or zines get through just fine, other times a prisoner never receives them.
Ready to get started? Check out this list of political prisoners here from NYC Anarchist Black Cross (ABC).