I recently received a letter from a person asking how to get involved with supporting women in prison. The return address was from a small town that takes up 2.4 square miles and has approximately 14,000 residents. As far as the letter writer knew, there were no organizations — or even individual advocates — working around these issues nearby. The letter reminded me that not everyone is blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) enough to live in a city with opportunities to get involved in advocacy or direct support.
So what are some ways to support people behind bars if you’re not near any existing organizations or grassroots groups? Here are seven places to start:
1. Become a pen pal. Yes, I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating. Reach out to a person in prison and start a correspondence. For many, you may be their life line to surviving the isolation and dehumanization that prisons foster. Not sure where to find a pen pal? Check out Black and Pink, which connects LGBTQ people behind bars with people outside across the nation.
2. Amplify the voices and experiences of people behind bars. Prison walls don’t just keep people inside; they also mask abuses and injustices that we (hopefully) wouldn’t stand for in the outside world. Help get these experiences out into the wider world. If you have a blog, Tumblr, Facebook or any other form of media, ask your new pen pal(s) to write something for it. Ask if you can include some of their words in your own posts. Or set up a blog specifically to highlight their voices and experiences.
3. Send books. For many people behind bars, particularly those in solitary confinement, books are a sanity-saver. Books allow people to occupy their minds and temporarily escape their prison cells. You can either donate books to one of the many volunteer groups that send books to people in prison or, if you have a pen pal, ask how you can send books directly. (Note: Most jails and prisons do not allow individuals to send books directly from their homes, but many allow books from bookstores, publishers and vendors like Amazon. You can usually find the regulations on the website for the prison or jail.)
4. Send in news from the outside world. Prisons isolate people, not just from other people but also from feeling as if they’re part of the outside world. For instance, a woman in Florida told me that no one in the solitary confinement unit learned about 9/11 for three weeks. Talk about feeling disconnected from the rest of the country! Send in printouts from online news sources or splurge to give the person a gift subscription to a magazine (be sure the person can receive subscriptions first).
5. Participate in a call-in campaign. Prison abuses are allowed to flourish because there’s a sense that no one is paying attention. When people call in about a particular abuse or condition, the prison has to pay attention and make changes. When CeCe McDonald was first sent to prison, prison staff refused to give her the amount of hormones she was prescribed. Outside supporters organized a call-in campaign and, within a week, prison staff felt so “inconvenienced” that they began administering the proper dosage. Without that outside support, prison staff would have continued to believe that they could treat McDonald, a young black trans woman, any way they pleased. Call-in campaigns have also changed egregious conditions. For example, in November 2013, after family members reported that their loved ones in Chicago’s Cook County Jail lacked heat despite the temperatures dipping to eight degrees, a call-in campaign succeeded in having the heat turned on.
All of the above are ways to support people currently behind bars. But what about making sure that more people aren’t swept into the net of the criminal punishment system? Even if you live in a town without existing advocacy organizations, you can still make a difference.
6. Keep track of proposed policies and laws in your area. Attend community events or politicians’ forums and speak out against practices that would increase criminalization. A friend told me that he recently attended a local political event. There, residents expressed annoyance at a group of dancers who played music and practiced in a nearby park in the evenings. At first, residents were told to call the police. But someone stood up and argued against calling the police. He suggested that residents talk to the dancers, let them know that the music was disturbing residents and see if they could practice at an earlier hour, turn down the music, or somehow accommodate people’s concerns. His suggestion changed the tenor of the meeting and the residents, instead of pushing for police intervention, began to consider ways that they could address these concerns without relying on criminalization.
7. Raise awareness about the issues! This includes talking to people in person, posting on your social media pages, and putting a sign in your window or lawn. Organize a film screening or book group that brings people together to learn about the vast reach of mass incarceration. (A partial list of prison documentaries is here but don’t forget about War on Terror entrapment, women’s self-defense, and solitary confinement. And here’s a list of books to get a conversation going.)
After reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow together, people in Kingston, N.Y., which has a population of 23,887, started the LGBTQ Task Force to Undo Mass Incarceration and Institutional Racism to connect issues of (racial) criminalization and mass incarceration with the historic criminalization of queer people and work towards ending both.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but hopefully it’s enough to get you started. Feel free to add other suggestions in the comments below.