Prison Pen Pals Chip Away at the Prison-Industrial Complex One Letter at a Time

On April 4, 2022, the state of Delaware is set to join dozens of prisons in 18 other states in ending physical mail sent inside the prison system. The policy would force loved ones, activists, and others to communicate only via costly digital platforms. Monica Cosby, a formerly incarcerated grandmother and an activist with Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration, said on the podcast Beyond Prisons that these policies are “decidedly cruel and intended to harm.” Receiving mail is a critical point of support for people on the inside.

Since the uprisings of the summer of 2020, more people than ever are interested in working to build a world without police and prisons. Organizations working toward this goal take many forms, including projects that may not be immediately recognizable as abolitionist on their face: pen pal or letter-writing exchanges between people inside and outside prison.

Ella Rosenberg is a member of the Knox College chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America, a subsection the Democratic Socialists of America that has college chapters and is organizing toward a mass labor movement. She says that her peers are among those becoming more aware of prison abolition, and it made them want to learn more about what was happening in the Hill Correctional Center, a prison located in the same town as their college: Galesburg, Illinois.

“If we on the outside don’t make the effort to make these connections, then they’re never going to get made, because that’s the point [of the system], is to cut people off,” Rosenberg says. “I think by writing these letters, a little bit, it is breaking down that barrier. And it’s bringing the people in prison back into the community where they live.”

Rosenberg says this is why she was insistent on writing to the men in the Hill Correctional Center, in particular: “This is the prison in our town. We’re writing to these guys because they’re right here.”

Rosenberg has been writing to her pen pal, Kevin “AK” Hemingway, for just over a year now. Hemingway told Truthout that when Rosenberg first wrote to him, it was “unexpected that a person like that would reach out,” and that he even wondered if perhaps she wanted to study him. With the benefit of time, however, the two have built a strong, trusting relationship that thrives on their differences. Hemingway says, “She taught me how to be a friend. I didn’t know how to be a friend with a woman.”

Abolitionists have been exchanging letters as part of their everyday political practice long before 2020. Black and Pink, a national organization dedicated to abolishing the criminal punishment system and liberating LGBTQIA2S+ people and people living with HIV/AIDS, was founded in 2005 with letter-writing as a core component. Black and Pink currently coordinates a national database of approximately 20,000 people looking for incarcerated pen pals.

Andrea Kszystyniak, who helps run Black and Pink’s pen pal program and edits the organization’s newsletter, believes that for many people on the outside, pen palling can be “a radicalizing engine.” That’s because writers are forced to confront the full humanity and circumstances of the people they write to, and can easily see that prison “isn’t helping this person…. [It’s] a disabling agent, intentionally destroying people’s mental health.”

Like Rosenberg, Kszystyniak asserts that the prison-industrial complex “tries to completely erase people and systematically strips them from all of their support systems, until they’re completely alone.” After that, a person’s “will to fight will go quickly.”

Charley, who has been writing to their pen pal for about five months as part of the California Coalition of Women Prisoners Writing Warrior project, compares the work of letter writing to the principles of participatory defense, a community organizing model that engages the families and communities of people facing charges in their legal defense. Charley says that “one of our most powerful resources for how to resist this system is to really pull together communities.” They add that this is an important form of resistance because the prison-industrial complex “just repackages the tactics that white supremacy used to colonize Africa and Turtle Island” and “banks on us giving up on keeping in contact with our loved ones, by painting them as bad people, and by creating situations that make it dangerous for us to keep in contact with them.”

Additionally, Charley pointed out that letter writing is a powerful action that can be taken by people who might not necessarily be able to protest in the streets. As a disabled person, Charley notes that it’s “a way that folks with chronic illnesses and disabled folks can get involved in abolition in a way that is really high impact.”

Letter writing cuts into the isolation and brings people closer together through the physical and figurative walls that the prison-industrial complex builds, and in doing so, it helps keep people safer. Imprisoned people who receive no mail or contact from anyone are at risk of being recognized by both corrections officers and other people inside as being vulnerable, because the lack of mail sends a message that no one is coming to advocate for them, says Kszystyniak.

Prison also works to cut people off from information and to create a totalizing social environment where, without contact or affirmation from people outside, imprisoned people can begin to feel that the maze of regulations — and their irregular and punitive application — is just.

Reece Graham-Bey, my own pen pal of six years who is now formerly incarcerated, explained it this way: “The longer that you were in prison, the more sense it makes. You have a ready explanation [for the injustice you experience] because you’ve had it explained to you. It’s almost like being in a propaganda camp or a retraining camp.”

Charley described the importance of simply “reinforcing reality” in letters. For example, another volunteer with the Writing Warriors program, Stephanie Hammerwold, told Truthout that when the COVID-19 vaccine was released, pen pals in the program filled a critical information gap so that people inside could make an informed choice about their health.

In the case of LGBTQ+ people in prison, letter writing and newsletters can be an essential source of scarce information about queer issues. Similarly, Graham-Bey says information about gender and feminism was extremely rare behind bars, and our letters were an important counterpoint to the misogyny that was rampant, particularly from the guards.

Information doesn’t just go into the prison, however, but also travels out. Letters are a vehicle for people inside to tell the outside world what the inside of the prison is like, especially when there are abuses or problems in the institution. In response to Truthout’s request for interviews, one person from a California women’s prison responded, “Please let the world know how the prison are taking inmates whom are not [COVID] positive to quarantine units and placing them around other inmates whom are positive for their own self motives.”

The bonds that are formed in the pen-palling relationships often lead to advocacy. Anna Bauer, another member of the Knox College group, recently put together a phone zap with her pen pal Strawberry Hampton. Bauer says that “our relationship has just come to be something that’s very meaningful and something that I really appreciate. I definitely feel like our letter-writing practice has definitely gone two ways. I’ve been able to kind of act as a conduit with the outside with her.”

There are plenty of barriers to exchanging letters, however, in whatever format.

There are the hard-to-follow regulations, and the constant surveillance, costs and delays, particularly associated with the for-profit proprietary messaging systems like ConnectNetwork and JPay. These systems work in a similar way to email, but each “page” of the message costs between $.15 and $.44 to send (without attachments, which are an additional page) and must be approved before it is delivered. Other states have eliminated the possibility of physical mail altogether, like the change set to take place in Delaware.

Hammerwold refers to these disruptions as a “JPay delay” because they are so regular, and says that her strategy is to let her pen pals know that if it takes her more than two days to respond, they should assume the delay is institutional. “I hate that that happens, because it erodes trust, and it’s something that’s beyond our control,” she says. “I don’t want that person to think I’ve given up.”

Several people said that messages about the conditions inside prison are often censored. After Strawberry Hampton’s own message to Truthout was blocked, her sister Ebona told Truthout in a phone conversation that the messages that are blocked are ones detailing incidents and especially naming inaction on the part of top officials. Hampton is regularly subjected to racial and heterosexist slurs, has received death threats from corrections officers, and is unable to sign up for classes so she can get “good time” (earned time toward earlier release). This pattern was confirmed as common by other incarcerated people interviewed, as well as by abolitionist organizers on the outside, and several imprisoned people relied on assistance from family members to get in contact or relay information to Truthout for this story because of limitations in the prison’s communication systems.

Letter writing — and any communication to and from prison — exposes both parties to a certain level of surveillance, given that anyone writing in to a prison has to give their first and last name. However, of course, the risk of retaliation is higher for the inside correspondent. Although some communications about activism, including prison abolition, are allowed into prisons without obstacles (and everyone was unequivocal that pen palling is a net positive), interviewees also cited circumstances in which they faced barriers or retaliation.

“If you started to write to me about people who support prisoners, people who support prisoner education, people who support abolition, people who support strategies for different visions of justice, the prison goes on high alert in a way that you probably can’t imagine on the streets,” Graham-Bey says. “You know, the surveillance ups, they start doing rounds on you, they start watching you, they start making you feel uncomfortable, they start going through your cell, you know, and they randomly take you to [segregation] for invented infractions.”

However, activists and loved ones of incarcerated people work daily to overcome these kinds of barriers. “I think it took incredible personal power, to pierce that kind of environment, and to reach into the place where I was at, and I could feel that power, in a sense of a real power, like a real person,” says Graham-Bey.

Forging relationships with each other through the intimate practice of letter writing allows each writer to represent themselves and be known. In letters, strangers learn to connect in honest, human ways to each other, and to do healing work. Hemingway says that his friendship with Rosenberg was transformative, and that his friends inside “could see a difference in me.”

Ajani Walden, a staff member with Black and Pink and an outside letter writer, says, “We’re talking about freedom, we’re talking about community care, that is what pen palling is. I care about the person I’m writing [to], the person that’s writing cares about me. I mean, it doesn’t really get any simpler than that, right? Because this is really what we’re supposed to be doing. Caring for other people, communicating, mutually destroying systems.” Walden emphasizes the two-way nature of the relationship, saying, “There’s some times where my pen pal writes me a letter and they literally uplifted my day, you know, and I’m on the outside.”

Dude Ramirez, an inside member of the Writing Warriors program, wrote to Truthout, saying that having a pen pal “means someone is taking time to care about you and sharing their time with you.” According to Writing Warriors correspondent Araceli Peña, having a pen pal when you are inside “enables you to be able to vent to others and you’re able to talk with someone about anything and just feel completely comfortable. Sometimes a person is just able to share more with someone through paper and yeah, it’s harder to share face to face sometimes.”

Christopher Naeem Trotter, who is currently serving a de facto life sentence and is Kszystyniak’s pen pal, told Truthout in a letter that, “Without their friendship and support, I probably would had given up on struggling to liberate myself from this belly of the beast, and just accepted that fact that I was going to die inside this belly of the beast which would give these prisoncrats something to celebrate about…. Now every day I am reminded that no matter how dark the days may appear that there is always a ray of light breaking through the crack to shine for you to see that there are still loving and kind people in this world that care about something other than [themselves].”

Letters and relationships are a source of hope for all of the people involved, and this lays a foundation for strong organizing.

According to Graham-Bey, it is often transformative for people in prison to know that there are people outside who are engaged in social movements, and who care about what is happening inside the prison from an abolitionist perspective. He says that letters also serve as tangible, written, coherent arguments that can be returned to again and again to support political education inside.

Anthropologist Orisanmi Burton has written recently that, “The slow and deliberate act of producing, circulating, and consuming letters is a contemplative practice generated from mutual investments of time, as well as emotional and intellectual labor, that has far reaching effects.”

People inside also benefit from knowing who is on the outside that can support them if they decide to engage in organizing work.

Meanwhile, abolitionists on the outside are nourished by the analysis of their comrades inside.

Kszystyniak says that letter writing is a good mechanism for “continued momentum toward abolition,” and highlights that “it’s super important that the folks inside are leading the movement.”

Trotter agrees, saying, “People on the outside must tune into their voices on paper because there are a lot of different ideas floating in these prisons. Sometime those ideas never get outside the prison gates because they have no one to write…. We need organizers on the outside to start reaching inside to prisoners getting prisoners ideas, learning what they are strategizing, because what happens on the inside affects what happens on the outside.”

Policies like the one in Delaware eliminating physical mail are another malicious attempt to further isolate and disappear people from our communities. Cosby, reflecting on a time when she received a letter that smelled like her mother, said, “[Physical] letters don’t weigh much but at the same time they weigh everything.”