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Literacy in prisons is incredibly difficult to achieve due to a lack of resources as well as severe restrictions on the freedom of prisoners to use books and educational materials. The monotony and complete inability to provide adequate resources, education, access to technology and other materials make it extremely difficult for people to successfully reintegrate into society – and this perpetuates the prison-industrial system. This continues to prove that prisons are not useful for any rehabilitation.
Recently, a tweet from an organization named Abolition Apostles received a lot of attention. He called on correspondents for his program to put imprisoned populations in touch with the outside world. They have a long waiting list of people who want to make connections, and not enough people who write.
Receiving and writing letters accomplishes a long list of goals. It reconnects those imprisoned outside. This makes them feel less alone and less abandoned by society. It also allows them to reconnect with their literacy and writing skills.
It is also essential for interpersonal skills. People in prison are extremely isolated and only have rare opportunities to speak with people who are not also part of the system. When you consider that young people between the ages of 18 and 24 make up 10% of the U.S. population, but 21% of those admitted to adult prisons each year (and among that, young men of color are overrepresented), a lot of people Inmates may not have had much interpersonal experience outside of island communities like high school or their prison systems.
Mail can also be a rare freedom, as detainees can express themselves and communicate with the outside world. I say “maybe” because, unfortunately, mail can be withheld in many prison systems for punitive reasons. In most establishments, letters containing expressive or creative choices, whether colorful inks, pretty paper, washi tape, stickers, etc., can be withheld or removed without any notification to the sender or the recipient. In most establishments, letters can only be written on white or lined paper, and written in blue or black ink, and that’s it. Some installations also have length limits.
Correspondents are also essential for people writing letters from outside 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 embedded in ourselves. . We must look within and seek to question the ways in which the industrial prison system and the criminal justice system have shaped our own ideas about justice and the trial.
Many of us, no matter how devoted we are to the ideas of reform or abolition, we still find ourselves rooted for justice as Punishment. For example, encouraging someone to be sentenced to life. As we fight for abolition and for the rights of incarcerated people, we must start by questioning the ideas that are ingrained in ourselves – trying to change our own notions of what it means for someone to be in prison or of having been imprisoned in the past.
Groups like Abolition Apostles argue that correspondence programs are a crucial step in this process. By communicating with someone who is imprisoned, we are forced to rethink our own assumptions about their humanity. In 1980, my grandparents Bruce Jackson and Diane Christian published a book and documentary, both titled Death Row, in which they interviewed cellblock inmates in Texas who were either fighting for their release or waiting for their release. the state executes them. Their film helped reveal the humanity of the people there and the secluded, mundane existence that they are forced to inhabit. Communicating with incarcerated people requires us to change our perceptions of inmates and of the criminal system as it exists today.
When I saw this Abolition Apostles tweet, I thought of my grandparents and was pushed into action. I love to write letters and have made many friends by becoming their penpals. It was the perfect opportunity for me to combine a personal passion with an abolitionist desire.
The apostles of abolition are not the only one of this group. There is a lot. Groups like Power Blossoms and Black and Pink focus specifically on LGBTQ and other marginalized populations. Books Behind Bars, a grassroots volunteer abolition program that provides free books to inmates in New Jersey jails, has a correspondence program, as does the Sylvia Rivera Law Project. And there are many more.
So go ahead, do your research and get involved. It is an opportunity both to improve and to support the incarcerated populations.
For more information on literacy and the criminal justice system, read my article on the ever-increasing challenge of getting books into prisons, learn more about the importance of prison libraries, and read other books that point out how bad the system is.