Literacy within prisons is incredibly difficult to achieve due to a lack of resources as well as severe restrictions on incarcerated people’s freedom to engage with books and educational material. The monotony and the complete failure to provide adequate resources, education, technology access, and other materials make it extremely difficult for people to successfully reenter society — and this perpetuates the prison-industrial system. It continues to prove that prisons are not useful in any rehabilitative way.
Recently, a tweet by an organization named Abolition Apostles received a lot of attention. It was calling for pen pals for its program connecting imprisoned populations with the outside world. They have a long, long waitlist of people who want to make connections, and not enough people writing.
Receiving and writing letters accomplishes a long list of goals. It reconnects imprisoned people to the outside. It makes them feel less alone and less abandoned by society. It also allows them to re-engage with their literacy and writing skills.
It’s also vital for interpersonal skills. Incarcerated people are extremely isolated and get only rare chances to speak with people who are not also within the system. When you consider that young people ages 18 to 24 make up 10% of the U.S. population but 21% of people admitted into adult prison each year (and of that, young men of color are overrepresented), a lot of incarcerated people may not have had a lot of interpersonal experience outside of insular communities like high school or their prison systems.
Mail can also be a rare freedom, in that prisoners are able to express themselves and communicate with the outside world. I say “can be” because unfortunately, mail can be withheld in many prison systems for punitive reasons. At most facilities, letters that include expressive or creative choices, whether that be colored inks, pretty paper, washi tape, stickers, and more, can be withheld or discarded without any notification to the sender or recipient. At most facilities, letters can only be written on plain white or lined paper, and written in blue or black ink, and that’s it. Some facilities also have length limits.
Pen pals are also crucial for the people writing the letters from outside of prisons. As Mariame Kaba describes in her book We Do This ‘Til We Free Us: Abolitionist Organizing and Transforming Justice, in order to move towards abolition, we must first recognize that state violence is ingrained within ourselves. We have to look inwards, and look to challenge the ways that the prison-industrial system and the criminal legal system have formed our own ideas around justice and trial.
Many of us, no matter how dedicated we are to ideas of reform or abolition, still find ourselves rooting for justice as punishment. For example, rooting for someone to be sentenced for life. In fighting for abolition and for the rights of the incarcerated, we have to start by challenging ideas ingrained within ourselves — trying to shift our own notions of what it means for someone to be in prison or have been imprisoned in the past.
Groups like Abolition Apostles hold that pen pal programs are one crucial step within this process. By communicating with someone who is imprisoned, we are forced to look at our own assumptions about their humanity. In 1980, my grandparents Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian published a book as well as a documentary, both titled Death Row, in which they interviewed inmates on a Texas cell block who were either fighting for release or waiting for the state to execute them. Their film helped to reveal the humanity of the people there, and the mundane, isolated existence they’re forced to inhabit. Communication with people in prisons forces us to shift our perceptions of the incarcerated and of the criminal system as it exists today.
When I saw that tweet from Abolition Apostles, I thought of my grandparents, and I was moved to action. I love writing letters, and have made many friends by becoming their pen pals. This was the perfect opportunity for me to combine a personal passion with an abolitionist drive.
Abolition Apostles is not the only such group. There are plenty. Groups like Power Blossoms and Black and Pink focus specifically on LGBTQ and other marginalized populations. Books Behind Bars, a grassroots all-volunteer abolition program providing free books to people in New Jersey prisons, has a pen pal program, as does the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. And there are many more out there.
So go, do your research, and get involved. It’s an opportunity both to improve yourself and to support incarcerated populations.
For more information on literacy and the criminal legal system, read my piece on the ever-growing challenge of getting books into prisons, learn more about the importance of prison libraries, and read more books that highlight how broken the system really is.