Writing to inmates in the USA

I have been corresponding with incarcerated people in the USA for almost 4 years now. The idea came from a passion I have always had: the love of writing, especially of writing letters and diaries. I decided that I could turn this passion into something useful, and so I started looking for ways to help. Unfortunately, I could not find programmes which connect inmates in Italian prisons to the “outside”1If you know of any such organisations, please let me know!, so I had to resort to similar organisations working with US inmates. In this post, I would like to share my experience, and how it has given me a glimpse into life behind bars in the USA, as well as the reflections this brought about in my daily life.

Just a bit of background before I start. Most of the people I have been in contact with are black males, as this is the majority of the prison population in the USA. However, I have also been writing to gender-fluid and female inmates, who have shared very different life (and imprisonment) experiences with me. Two of the people I am in touch with are serving a disproportionately long sentence for an amazingly trivial charge2 As an example, one is serving a 30-year sentence for armed robbery, during which he didn’t fire a single shot., and not surprisingly both identify a Black.

The very first thing that struck me once I started corresponding with inmates is the unbelievable amount of obstacles and bureaucratic difficulties that are put in place in order to prevent inmates from communicating with the outside world. While I can understand there are some risks to be minimised regarding inmates communicating with free-world criminal associates, I do not believe this can justify the amount of odd and sometimes plain ridiculous measures put in place in some institutions. For instance, many institutions do not allow postcards or any type of “card” to be sent in, except from authorised vendors such as Touchnote. This feels more like a commercial partnership than a security measure, that ends up costing more to families and friends who want to keep in touch — the authorised vendors are usually more expensive than their free world counterpart. Not to mention the (inexplicable) inability to make international phone calls or video visitations, or the crazy fees charged to send money through services such as JPay3$8 charge to send $60.. It looks to me more and more like a well thought-through strategy to make money out of the desperation of people who are trying to break the toxic isolation they have been forced into — of course in many cases (but not all) they have committed a crime for which they are paying, but what is the fine line between retribution and plain cruelty?

As a consequence of this, and many other similar strategies (e.g., prison canteen offering very little and low-quality food, forcing inmates to purchase extra food from… guess who? Authorised vendors, of course!), those who have money and a supportive family can make it though, even get an education and prepare for life after imprisonment. While the others (the majority) are left to their own means, which are often illegal and deteriorate these individuals’ chances of becoming positive members of society once out4 According to some sources, about 45% of people released from prison re-offend within five years of release. And many more end up becoming homeless, alcoholics, or below the poverty line. More info at: https://www.themarshallproject.org..

Not to mention inmates with mental illness, the LGBTQI+ population, or generally people with specific psychological needs. The system seems to have been designed exactly to make them into self-hating, murderous machines. The lack of support is appalling, as is the access to support networks and resources5I am here referring to the specific case of an LGBTQI+ inmate incarcerated in Texas, who is in dire need of psychological support and instead only receives abuse and hatred from fellow inmates, prison guards, their family and anyone else in between.. Let’s state things plainly: this is not a corrective system but a punishing one, designed to aggravate any pre-existing physical or mental illness, as well as to destabilise individuals who are already overwhelmingly coming from vulnerable groups. I regard this as one of the (many) colossal failures of our society.

These are people, not objects. They have made mistakes, and some of them might indeed be a threat to other people and must therefore be helped and kept apart from society, at least for some time. But I have become more and more convinced that punitive justice is not the answer. What I read in the letters I receive sounds to me more like the continuation of some sort of slavery-type institution, where for the most trivial reasons disadvantaged people are stripped of their freedom, dignity and sometimes also basic human rights6 Such as keeping in touch with their family and loved ones. in order to make money out of them. It feels more and more like our whole society7 This is true of Italy as much as for the US. Our problem here is overcrowded prisons that hold 300% of the people they have been designed for, most of which are illegal immigrants who end up in jail for petty crimes. is living in denial, preferring to turn a blind eye to the problem rather than trying to solve it. After all, the aim of improving prison conditions and moving towards a corrective rather than punitive justice system does not win many votes, anywhere in the world I presume.