People hate us. It sounds melodramatic, but it is true nonetheless. We’re hated by each other, by people on the outside, and by people working on the inside. By ‘us,’ I mean incarcerated persons. Offenders, inmates, convicts, prisoners. And there are people who make it their mission in life to let us know that hatred is all we deserve.
An inmate can be persuaded otherwise through cards and letters. Phone and visitation are also effective ways to do this, but it all starts with mail. You can’t visit me or receive a phone call until one or two letters pass between us. Therefore, those who staff prison and jailhouse mailrooms have the power to wreak havoc on an inmate’s psyche. The mailroom is the hub of most love entering or leaving prison. Limit mail? Limit hope.
This isn’t lost on people working in mailrooms nor those who make rules and regulations governing mail delivery. Some examples:
Stickers – Many prison mailroom employees around the country believe stickers are abhorrent. It is unclear why adhesive is so detested. Prison mailrooms consider it so dangerous, mail will be returned to sender if any adhesive-backed material is attached anywhere on a piece of mail – including an address label. It is a wonder why stamps exempted from the no-sticker rule.
Pictures – There is a major industry which supplies provocative photos to prison inmates. Inmates pick from proof sheets supplied by various companies and take their choices to the mailroom when they are ready to order. Personnel review photos after they arrive to ensure they aren’t too revealing. They will also carefully scan any photo sent by family members. An inmate I know was told that a picture of his four-year-old daughter had been rejected because she was flashing a gang sign. He later found out she was holding up a peace sign.
Address rules – Letters from prison require complete return addresses in case they contain threats or illegal instructions. The USPS doesn’t care as long as the ‘To’ address is deliverable. I once absent-mindedly omitted the city and zip code of the return address on a letter. Rather than add this to the envelope, a ten-second operation, the mailroom employee grabbed a carbon-copy form, filled out the violation details, stapled it to the envelope, and sent it back for correction. After I completed the missing information and dropped the letter back into the mailbox, it was rejected once more (in triplicate) because I had used an abbreviated first name (Rick, instead of Richard).
Handmade items – Some mailrooms will reject homemade cards – something children love to make for loved ones in prison. An inmate on my wing needed to mail a large drawing but couldn’t afford the 8″ x 15″ envelope from commissary. He made his own envelope. The mailroom rejected it, claiming that the envelope “couldn’t be properly inspected.” Someone donated an official envelope and helped transfer the stamps from the rejected envelope. Technically this was also a rule violation. Inmates aren’t allowed to give commissary items to one another. Its considered extortion. Don’t give a friend a stamp or an envelope — it leads to rape. Or so one would think.
Stationary – Families in Texas were once able to send their incarcerated loved ones writing pads, pens, pencils, and even stamps. No longer. Other states have followed suit and force inmates to purchase stationary at inflated prices.
Postage – Commissary sells various stamp denominations but nothing else that might be useful. For instance, USPS offers a flat rate box which is economical — compared to stamps — if one needs to send home books. Because mailrooms are notorious for banning books, inmates often have to pay return postage for a rejected book. Not only will the mailroom refuse to sell you a flat rate box but they will also inflate the number of stamps required to send bulky items. Because they can, prison scum.
Eff Ewe – Maine recently tried to ban all non-legal mail to any of its prison inmates. Only judicial notices and legal correspondence would have been allowed. If the people of Maine hadn’t stopped the proposal, I have no doubt that many other states would have done the same. They may even yet try.
There are some reasonable rules regarding mail delivery which aim to ensure prison security, say, don’t send explosives or metal files through the mail. Yet, when you look at many rules and more importantly, the way they are enforced, it’s obvious that safety is merely a lame excuse offered for efforts to drain hope from the incarcerated. On its face this seems odd, doesn’t it? Why would prison officials want to squash an inmate’s hope? Because they don’t know who they’re supposed to serve. If they were intent on serving society, they would turn out hopeful, educated individuals who are ready to lead positive, productive lives. Instead, they make decisions which tend to embitter and degrade their charges— the very thing which leads to recidivism— costing society dearly.
Of course, not everyone can be educated. Not everyone can be turned from their anti-social behavior. Certainly though, belligerence and hatred greatly lowers the odds that one will leave prison better than when they entered.
The prison mailroom should be a conduit for love and hope and it is in many cases. It could be more, and you can be a part of that more if you’re on the outside reading this.
You could adopt a inmate, for instance. If you’re so inclined, you could also help by raising awareness about spiteful prison mail policies. Share this. End hateful prison mailroom practices.
Rick Fisk, Dalhart Unit, TDCJ
Initially when I began reading this book, I thought it was going to give me all the reasons why I needed to change my thinking (as an inmate), yet offer not much in the way of breaking down how I could do it — thankfully I was wrong! Houses of Healing is a remarkable guide on how one can truly delve deeply within themselves to peel back the many layers and discover why they are who they are and how they can begin to emerge into the person they know they can become.
This book’s author has created and taught a well-known program within prison walls for over the past two decades. Through this program, countless inmates have come to discover their true selves, inner passions, and potential by first confronting the pain and turmoil they suffered as a child and slowly but surely learning how to work through it. You might be thinking this could only happen with a therapist right there to walk you through such a tumultuous journey — I thought the same. However, Casarjian composed this book to act as a surrogate counselor, walking with you every arduous step of the way, ultimately leading you to a place of healing and self-discovery.
She uses a psychoanalytic approach (focused on tapping into one’s unconscious thoughts and influences that have, unbeknown to them, guided his/her behavior) to bring about this therapeutic breakthrough, whereby the “Inner Child” is the point of reference she asks her readers to get in touch with. The Inner Child, she suggests, resides deeply within all of us and, for prisoners in particular, this Inner Child’s unresolved conflicts that took place decades ago is often at the root of our self-destructive (i.e. substance addiction, violence, criminality, etc.) behavior. We are unable to change such embedded patterns of behavior without first getting in touch with the Inner Child that we’ve “buried” as a means to protect him or her — ourselves.
I read this book with an open mind, allowing the concepts and teachings to sink in. At times I wanted to disregard what she was saying, or dismiss what she was asserting as not applicable to me, but then I realized this was yet again a defense mechanism I was trying to use to protect my Inner Child. When I mentally let my guard down and absorbed what was being said, I noticed how stirred up inside I became and how some discovery and healing was happening as a result. When you read this book and instinctively find yourself shutting down, press on harder. There’s a reason you are having that reaction; chances are it’s because what is being said is exactly what you need to hear and apply to your own life.
Houses of Healing is a highly respected and recommended book, especially by those who have a stake in correctional rehabilitation (i.e. educators, counselors, support group facilitators), namely inmates looking to take their lives in a new direction. This may very well be your guide to truly coming to understand why your life ended up where it did and, more importantly, how you can begin to change both your long-held thoughts and harmful behavioral patterns. If there were one book I could recommend to anyone in prison who is looking to understand why they may have made a series of bad choices (without even thinking about it) that landed them in prison, are tired of living that way and wish to change, this would be that book. Give it a try: you won ‘t be sorry you did.
In 2013 Martin L. Lockett published his memoir, Palpable Irony: Losing my freedom to find my purpose. During his incarceration, he has earned a Certificate of Human Services from Louisiana State University, AA from Indiana University, BS in Sociology from Colorado State University – Pueblo, and an MS in Psychology from California Coast University. He continues to tutor in the GED program at the Oregon State Correctional Institution in Salem, Oregon, and co-facilitates an impaired driver victims impact panel. He aspires to counsel adolescents who struggle with substance abuse.
This month at AI we’re coordinating with many of our angel volunteers to get holiday greetings out to prisoners all around the country.
Thanks to everyone who is helping in this effort, including Jen at Inmates Matter Too (and her volunteers), and many of our adopters, including our friend Ashley Asti (visit her shop for organic and ethical skin care products this month, and 20% of your purchase goes to charity).
Thanks to our supporters on both sides of the wall, we are less than $600 away from our goal of $3,000 for our website fundraiser!
From the letter above, which included a donation of six stamped envelopes from an Arizona prisoner:
“You have taken on an enormous task, and placed on your shoulders a heavy burden, because on your shoulders you now carry the hope of those who were hopeless.
Prisoners who have jobs get paid 35¢ an hour (some a bit more). So please keep in perspective that each letter you receive with a SASE represents two hours of raking dirt in 105° Arizona heat, or sweating in a humid upholstery shop. Their letters to you are no small investment but they are worth it to these men. Because they carry hope.”
Volunteers have been working around the clock in preparation for the launch of our re-designed website. Completion of this project will enable us to reach more adopters, and in turn, more forgotten inmates.
Send us some love this holiday, please help us raise
We are a registered domestic non-profit and rely solely on donations. no one at AI receives a salary, and 100% of donations benefit prisoners directly. If everyone reading this gave a few dollars, our goal would be met in an hour.
Everyone at AI headquarters and all our volunteers are pulling together to help get some of the backlog of mail cleared out by the end of the year. The office cats, Scout (top) and Boo (bottom) are always doing their part.
Check out the recent stamp donations – we’re so grateful!
Leah and I are using the holiday to put in a solid four days of work to clear out some of the back log of mail.
About 11:00, we had a surprise visitor bearing a holiday meal for each of us (provided by the local Elks Lodge:
AND, a personal donation of $500 to go towards our website fundraiser!
We are so grateful.
A blessed Thanksgiving to our entire AI family.
In response to a letter we sent to Congressman DeFazio in Oregon, we received the following:
Dear Ms. Brown:
Thank you for contacting me about mandatory minimum sentencing. We are in complete agreement on this issue.
You will be pleased to know that I have consistently supported legislation to either reduce or eliminate mandatory minimum sentences. For example, I was a cosponsor of the Smarter Sentencing Act last Congress. This bill would have reduced mandatory minimum sentences for certain non-violent drug offenses. The bill also would have directed the U.S. Sentencing Commission to review and amend its guidelines for sentencing and requires the Attorney General to submit a report on how cost savings from these changes will be used to further reduce prison overcrowding and invest in prevention, intervention, and improved law enforcement.
With federal prisons currently operating at between 35 and 40 percent above their rated capacity, there is no question our federal sentencing system needs reform. I have long had serious concerns about the increased use of mandatory minimum sentences, particularly for non-violent first time drug offences. I have met with many judges who felt sentences they were required to hand down were excessive, but were unable to apply any discretion to the sentences because of mandatory minimum laws. The effects of such sentences from these failed policies are making hardened criminals out of non-violent offenders.
In place of mandatory minimums I support reinstating federal parole, among other policy options. I am also interested in alternatives to incarceration where appropriate. For example, I have always supported funding for drug treatment courts. Drug courts play an important role in breaking the cycle between drug abuse and crime. They combine substance abuse treatment, mandatory drug testing, sanctions and incentives, and transitional services to help substance-abusing offenders get back on their feet and prepare for re-entry into the community. These services are not only critical for past abusers by helping individuals become self-sufficient and contributing members of society, but drug courts also help build safer communities. Additionally, as a County Commissioner I fought hard to establish a work camp that served as an alternative to incarceration. I believe that it would be worthwhile to look into similar alternatives on a federal level.
Thanks again for contacting me. You can be sure I will continue to fight for long overdue reforms to our criminal justice system. Please keep in touch.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE PETER DeFAZIO
Fourth Congressional District, Oregon
This is an email I received from our remarkable friend “Joseph,” incarcerated in Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex. Joseph is organizing an inmate fundraiser, to help us pay for our new website after we lost our funding.
Oddly, America, and I suppose humanity as a whole has a long history of allowing our diversity to cause divisiveness.
When the English first began settling here, they persecuted and slaughtered innumerable Native Americans. Then as more Europeans came, the divisiveness continued as the Irish, German, Italian and others were designated as less than because they were different.
The era of slavery, which many of us (myself included) imagine as ending after the civil war, took on many more sinister faces.
One startling example is the Black Codes, which were enacted by the southern states post war, and required freed “blacks” to have a written verification of employment every year, else they were arrested for vagrancy, and rented out to the highest labor contractor. Then, since they were not slaves which required food and health to be useful, they would work them to death, or beat them brutally and leave them to die.
This provoked the Reconstruction Era, and brought about the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to our constitution.
However, the horrors persisted through the 1960’s when the civil rights movement gave a minor reprieve… Which brought about the creation of our modern prison industrial complex. Devastation to communities torn asunder by the incarceration of their (for the most part) men, fatherless children, families without providers…and then the return of men damaged beyond repair by their incarceration experience. Men who further burdened their communities by the cruelty they often had to embrace in order to survive inside.
Our diversity in here has caused divisiveness, historically. Whites v Blacks, Latino v Latino…and all of us against the guards, as well as society.
We are all human. We are all citizens of America. We all matter. We all have much more in common than we do differences.
Yes, my dear friend, you and I know this truth, but how do we get that message to the people that do not know?
When I get out, I intend to do public speaking and one of my key goals will be to raise awareness about the continued value of every man, woman, and child. Free or incarcerated.