By Carl Cattermole
If communication was water then the ‘free world’ is like an average British afternoon – the internet is pissing down on our minds. Notification! Email! Ding ding bzz bzz!
Prisons, on the other hand, have a micro-climate like Arizona. It’s dry as hell. So, when an officer slides a letter under your door it’s like the rumbling thunder in one of those euphoric movie sequences when the monsoons break.
Once you’ve understood that the subtext of prison is to further exclude the excluded (dress people in grey trackies, refer to them as numbers and deny them contact with the people they love) then it should become patently obvious why putting pen to paper throws a real spanner in its works.
But if you write in the wrong way you can do more harm than good. So, here are a few suggestions when it comes to prison letter writing.
You don’t have to write an epic
30-page odysseys are great, but they might mean that you never actually get round to writing. My biggest tip would be to make it easy for yourself cos then you’ll actually get the letter in the post box.
Have a book of stamps in your pocket to make the flow of info as effortless as possible: see it, stick a stamp on it, send it. A lot of people think about their friend in prison but never get round to writing. If you’re the organised one out of the bunch, then pounce while you’re at a party, pass round a card for your friend and get everyone to scribble them a message.
Don’t be silly
Avoid taboo questions such as “why are you in jail?”. Also remember that censors read all correspondence so do not discuss contraband or contravention (“so, do you have a mobile phone?” etc.) or anything associated (“do you need any credit?” etc). Avoid sensitive issues such as sexuality because the pen pushers and the baton brigade have lunch, cigarettes and possibly affairs together.
Keep the tone enjoyable
I’m not going to explain ‘how to have a conversation’ but it’s pretty much as simple as that: be talkative, funny and tell a story; do not be woeful, depressing or insensitive (prison has enough of these vibes already).
English people are often scared to ask very basic questions – it’s comedic how much time gets wasted. Go ahead and ask what it is that they’re looking for and maybe state what it is you’d like in return.
Unless you’re writing to a politically-minded prisoner, I’d definitely steer away from long winded political analyses of the prison system. I think it’s great that politically-minded people so often involve themselves with prison solidarity but when people go straight in with terms like ‘oppression’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘state violence’ it can lead to an immediate disconnect. Prisoners often know more about ‘oppression’, ‘solidarity’ and ‘state violence’ than anyone you’ll ever meet so I’m not suggesting people water down their ideas; in fact, I’d suggest that you let them take the lead – it might be you who needs to add more radical Ribena to the mix.
Commit to supporting someone.
If you don’t receive a response, then it may be for a number of reasons: maybe the letter didn’t get delivered (Her Majesties Prisons throw letters away rather than wasting staff time on processing them and prisoners often get moved or released at short notice). Or maybe the prisoner didn’t feel able to respond: being in prison isn’t particularly inspirational – there’s not much to report, the place can make your mindset turn similar hues to the walls (often grey, sometimes blue). I’d suggest persevering, maybe send them a second letter using an altered tact.
If you do receive a response, then you should endeavour to write back. A lot of people in prison have been let down by friends, family, teachers and authorities so forging connection with a new person may well be hard and if you fail to respond you’ll likely be cementing this sentiment.
Avoid making people explain really basic stuff about jail life
I remember people would be like “hey! Did you watch this and that on iPlayer?” (jail has no cable, no official internet, just a TV if you’re lucky). Much more annoying was when people were like “oh my god! You’re locked up 23.5hrs a day! Surely that’s not legal? Complain to the staff!” Firstly, it is legal; secondly, the staff don’t give a shit; thirdly, I already wrote a book about these basics: go read it.
Prisons provide two free letters per week but anything beyond has to be paid for by the prisoner. One way round this limitation is to send a book of stamps with your letter.
Find a prisoner to write to
A prisoner’s address consists of their surname, prison number and prison (for example Cattermole A7187AB, HMP Wandsworth SW18 3HU).
Prison numbers are not openly available. Ideally, there would be an online directory of prisoners who have opted in for receiving post in order to help all those who receive zero exterior contact. It’d be relatively simple to institute (excuse the pun) but, if you know anything you know anything about the Ministry of Justice then you know this idea is far too common sense and humane.
Some prisoner addresses will be held by pen pal groups such as Bent Bars (specifically for buddying LGBTQ+ supporters with LGBTQ+ prisoners), anarchist websites and various pen pal sits such as prisonerspenfriends.org.
Personally, I’ve never seen pen pal programs promoted within UK prisons. This results in the same old story: those who would most benefit from support (those with little social confidence and zero exterior contact) will be the least likely to receive it. To counteract this, you could suggest to a pen pal buddy that they spread word of the existence of pen pal programs to those other prisoners who’d benefit the most.
You can also email
Emailaprisoner.com is really cheap. They lack the personal touch of a letter but they’re quicker, cheaper and can’t be ‘lost’ by Royal Mail or the prison service. From some jails the prisoner can respond digitally but in others they still have to respond by post.
Send money if you can
Most prisoners and supporters aren’t looking for a baldly transactional interaction and it’s a potentially toxic power dynamic, so don’t worry too much; however, if the question of financial support arises then contextualise their predicament.
Prisoners are paid an average of £7 per week. This miniscule amount must be used to buy credit for overpriced phone calls (now you understand why so many prisoners opt for contraband mobiles), overpriced food (DHL have state-awarded monopoly on prison supplies then charge prisoners above market prices) and overpriced catalogue items (again, monopolised by big corporations like Argos and Littlewoods).
Hence, doing basic things like staving off starvation (prisoners are fed on less than £2 a day), using the official telephone enough to properly communicate, and buying a pillowcase are exclusive to those who have exterior financial support. Many do not have this luxury so – within your means – give what you can.
The link between debt and prison industries is far deeper than I’ll go into here. Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang is a must-read. You’ll never feel guilty for giving a few quid to a con ever again.
You’ll get in the swing of it
Prison often feels like a dystopian period drama – you could call it Downton Scabby. Anyway, you’ll shortly get used to handwriting and stamp licking, and if you’re finding it hard then remind yourself that your imprisoned correspondent is most likely acclimatising to taking a shit next to someone they met yesterday or eating rats to avoid starvation (true HMP story).
Carl Cattermole is an award-winning journalist, author of Prison: A Survival Guide (Penguin) and unrepentant former prisoner, currently on bail awaiting trial.
Illustration by Cat Sims.
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