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 SHOULD I 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 (without incrimination of course.) 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. But always keep in mind that jail mail is opened and read before making it to the addressee and repression is an all too common tactic, especially against anarchist prisoners.
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 (again, check the specific rules of the prison you’re writing to). 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, do not 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).
If you are uncomfortable using your home address as your return address, consider getting a PO Box. If, after receiving a letter, you are uncomfortable with the content being sent, remember you are not required to write and you can chose how to continue.
Also of importance, 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.
Yours in struggle,
Kansas City Anarchist Black Cross