Writing to Prisoners

One of the main problems that puts people off from getting involved in supporting prisoners is a feeling of intimidation about writing to a prisoner for the first time. It is very hard to write a letter to someone you don't know. People find that they either don't know what to say, feel there are things they can't talk about, or think that prisoners won't be interested in what they have to say. Well, this is a problem most of us have had to deal with and get over, so we've drawn up some suggestions to help you. Obviously, these aren't rigid guidelines, and we don't pretend to have solved all potential problems in this space. Different people will write different letters. But hopefully, the guidelines below will be of some use.

Some prisons restrict the number of letters a prisoner can write or receive. Prisoners may also have to buy their own stamps and envelopes, and prisoners aren’t millionaires, so don't necessarily expect a reply to your card or letter. A lot of prisons allow stamps or a self-addressed envelope to be included with a card or letter, but some don't. Letters do also get stopped, read, delayed, and 'diverted.' If you suspect your letters have been or will be nicked by the screws, you can send it ‘Recorded Delivery.’ Although this unfortunately costs a lot, prison officials do then they have to open it in the prisoner’s presence. Also, you should put a return address-- not just so the prisoner can reply (!), but also because some prisons don't allow letters without a return address. Of course, it doesn't have to be your address, but be careful about using PO Box numbers, as some prisons don't allow these either!

Say who you are, and (if it's relevant) what group you're from. Some people reckon it's better to be upfront about your politics as well, to give prisoners the choice to stay in contact with you or not. Say where you heard about them and their case. The first letter can be reasonably short-- maybe only a postcard. Obviously, when you get to know people better you'll have more to talk about. If you are writing to a "framed" prisoner whom you believe to be innocent, letting the prisoner know that you believe them will bring them confidence.

Some people writing to prisoners are afraid to talk about their lives and what they are up to because they think either the prisoner is not interested or that this may depress people banged up, especially prisoners with long sentences. Although in some cases this may be true, on the whole a letter is the highpoint of the day for most prisoners. Prison life is dead boring, and any news that livens it up, whether or not it's about people they know, is generally welcome. Especially if you didn't know them before they went to prison, prisoners will want to know about you and what your life is like. But use your common sense; don't write about anything that is likely to either get a prisoner in shit with the screws, or get you (or anyone else) in trouble with the cops.

For people imprisoned from our movements and struggles, it's vital to keep them involved in the ongoing resistance. Telling them about actions, sending them magazines (if they want them), and discussing ideas or strategies with them are good ideas. Use your head, though; some people will just want to keep their head down till they get out.

Based on the www.spiritoffreedom.org.uk adaption of a leaflet produced by the Anarchist Black Cross.