Many editorials and news articles have wistfully mourned the current state of the United States Postal Service since the Postmaster General announced in January 2011 that over 2,000 post offices will close in the next two years. With the agency’s significant debt mounting each year, many have begun to question whether or not we need a postal service, which many now see as an antiquated means of sending and receiving communications and news.
Lovers of old-fashioned letter writing are waxing nostalgic in op-ed pieces all over the country, and I certainly cast my lot amongst those who believe that we express ourselves in a different, often fuller, way when we put ink to paper and compose a message meant for a reader to hold and keep. My concern about the US Postal Service is tied to this but has more to do with people who have much less access to other forms of communication than I.
Rural postal customers and those who live on remote islands, in the Alaskan tundra, or on isolated reservations places harbor real dread of becoming even more cut off from the rest of the world. This subject has had some news coverage, usually accompanied by a human interest story about a community of devoted letter writers who use the post office as a place for socialization and the keeping of traditions.
What I have not yet seen in the news about the postal service is any coverage at all about how the timely and consistent delivery of mail effects prisoners and their families. Prisons are truly the last great bastions of letter writing in the U.S. and perhaps the world. Though some prison systems now enable prisoners to receive messages sent via email, the vast majority of communication between those in prison and those of us who are not occurs through the hand written word. The cost of visits and telephone calls are prohibitively expensive for many prisoners’ friends and families, but even indigent prisoners can usually find a way to lay hands on pen, paper, and postage to get in touch with the people they need to reach outside the walls, including their lawyers, prisoner advocacy groups, and journalists.
Though I have not seen any studies documenting this, I highly suspect that the necessity of letter writing in prison has a significant impact on improving literacy among a great number of prisoners and on encouraging intellectualism among certain members of incarcerated populations. Countless prison memoirs and essays attest to the fact that receiving mail in prison fortifies the soul, taps into the wellspring of hope in the most desolate of places, and staves off feelings of isolation and abandonment. Often mail in prison is delivered by guards calling out the names of those receiving mail as they walk down the tiers of cells, and to have one’s name called offers a special status to those with letters coming to them. The other prisoners and the prison staff are made aware that someone in the outside world is paying attention to this person. Even if what is being delivered that day is a magazine or other impersonal publication, the recipient of such mail has a person in the world beyond the walls who cared enough to send reading material. So many of the 2.3 million incarcerated in this country have no one who writes to them, so those who do receive mail have a special status. Prisoners and staff alike report that regular receipt of phone calls, visits, and mail make a person less likely to suffer abuse while incarcerated. Everyone in the prison is aware of who has people on the outside who care about them, who would advocate for them in a crisis, and those who do not are more vulnerable. Who would complain if they disappeared? To whom would they report a rape or an attack?
The level of isolation and lack of agency experienced by prisoners raises the stakes of communication with the outside world. Almost by accident, I discovered the profundity of prisoners’ desire to reach out to people in the free world, even strangers. When I decided to write a play about prisoners’ families, I also wanted to include perspectives from those in prison but was not able to secure permission to conduct interviews in prisons. The next best thing, I decided, would be to solicit letters from prisoners to tell me about their relationships with their families. I placed an ad in a newsletter put out by the Coalition for Prisoners’ Rights in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Their newsletter is sent without charge to all prisoners and for a nominal fee to their families and advocates who subscribe. It has a broad circulation throughout the U.S. and into some parts of Canada, and I placed an ad in the newsletter saying that I was the child of a prisoner and a student who was writing a play about prisoners’ families. If these folks would be willing to answer a few questions about their relationships with their families, they could write me at my address at the university where I was studying. The first week after the ad appeared in the newsletter I had received 100 letters; by the end of the second week that number had doubled, and by the time I graduated and moved away several years later, I had received letters from over 400 prisoners telling me about what had happened to their families. I conjecture that part of this overwhelming response came from the need that so many of us have to talk about what prison has done to our families, but perhaps another significant part of this was the implicit promise that I would read their words, that I and anyone who might see these stories represented on stage would become witnesses to some aspect of these lives that prisons conceal.
I send a lot of mail to people in prison and encourage those of you who have a connection to a prisoner to do the same. Strong connections with people in the free world help prisoners live better lives both during and after incarceration. This website has a new page which provides the mailing addresses for the incarcerated contributors to Razor Wire Women who wish to make their contact information public. Je’Anna Redwood suggested this addition to the site, and we are now writing letters to all other incarcerated contributors to the book to ask if they would like their addresses listed as well. We will only list addresses if and when each contributor requests that we do so, as a means of protecting their privacy. However, if you read the book and want to share your reactions with a particular contributor whose address is not listed, you can send your letters to me, and I will pass them along to the writer or artist in question.
Last year my postman actually thanked me for the number of letters I send on a daily basis. He said that if everyone sent as much mail as I do, the US Postal Service would not be in trouble, which is something friends of mine have been saying as a joke for years. His comment made me feel incredibly gratified because someone noticed my efforts to stay connected to my father and other people about whom I care. Prisoners are doing more than their fair share to support the Postal Service. Let us do the same in support of prisoners.