by Zazie Tobey, staff writer
When one sits down to write a letter, which is not often these days, they don’t usually give much thought to the color ink they are using, the type of paper they are writing on, the pictures they doodle or nicknames they endearingly use. But when one writes a letter to a person in jail or prison, each detail must be followed in meticulous accordance with the facility’s rules in order to reach the recipient.
“I’m pretty sure the first few letters I sent didn’t even make it through,” said Sheridan Boyle, a sophomore on Environmental Justice Crew. “I couldn’t send things like cards, or thank activists for their work.”
Last year while sorting through magazines on Recycling Crew, Boyle came across a list inside Animal Liberation Front Magazine that provided addresses for activists who were in jail and prison. Boyle immediately felt motivated by the ability to celebrate the activism these incarcerated individuals were dedicated to, and wrote her first few letters in hopes that she could lift some spirits or spark up a conversation.
Boyle will be organizing and holding a prison letter writing tutorial/workshop in Sage Café and would like to eventually see them become a monthly event. Materials and information about guidelines will be provided. The letters students write will go out to many different prisons, with a focus on incarcerated environmental activists and a primary goal of creating communication and awareness between sender and receiver.
“When you read how people’s lives change in prison, it makes you realize how crazy eco-terrorism is perceived by the public,” said Boyle.
Boyle as well as other Environmental Justice Crew members initially focused on writing letters to classmates who were jail—a Wilson alumna was recently detained on counts of Eco terrorism. Boyle is bottom-lining the prison letter project however she has plenty of support from her crew members as well as other students who speak from personal experience when they say how important receiving a letter in jail can be.
“Its boring as hell in jail,” said Eva Westheimer, a junior. “Letter writing is what gets a lot of people through.”
This summer Westheimer was arrested along with 20 other people in a mountain mobilization that shut down the Hobet strip mine in West Virginia. The 20 were arrested on charges of obstruction, a charge later dropped, and trespassing. Westheimer was one of ten who spent six days in jail; the other ten spent eleven days.
“We didn’t know how long we would be in jail,” said Westheimer. “Some people weren’t as prepared as others to be there.”
In jail and prison, something called commissary, a card or account that other people can put money into, is granted to each person admitted. Among other things Westheimer could spend her commissary to get paper, stamps and envelopes. Over the course of her six days in jail, Westheimer was able to receive only a few letters from her partner.
“He couldn’t tell me anything besides the weather, or the birthday cake he ate,” she said. “You pretty much have to talk about the day-to-day stuff.”
The letters don’t have to be long thought out, serious things, in fact, most personal or opinion-based information is inappropriate and will not make it past mail inspection.
Westheimer said the first letter she wrote was something as simple as, “I hope your having a great day”. You don’t need a workshop or letter writing station to compose your first letter.
“We (students) should notice the incredible privilege that is here, and the incredible disparity that is everywhere else,” she said.
We have the resources to write letters, the time, the vocabulary that we are learning while slaving away over college academia – writing a letter can take less than a minute.
“It brings the outside world to those who have been in for a while,” said Boyle.
Keep on the lookout on the inside page for the letter writing workshop and to learn more about other organizations dealing with this issue go to MailtoJail.com, a nonprofit that accepts letters via e-mail to print out and mail to inmates across the country.