There’s a huge difference between pitying prisoners and actually supporting them. Charity groups may want to “help” prisoners by implementing programs that they think are needed, pitying them and blaming them for their situation.
A true ally sees prisoners as partners in change, as peers who should be listen to and as those who are held captive by the state. It’s not a coincidence that prisons populations are for the most part indigenous folks and people of colour. It’s systemic oppression. Non-prisoners can address this by being a support for prisoners in several different ways.
Writing to prisoners is a simple and effective way to bridge the gap between the “outside” and “inside” worlds. It can help keep a prisoner informed about what is happening in the world, in a movement or in his or her community. It may sound intimidating at first to write to a total stranger you know nothing about. Keep in mind that they are human. Share your interests and ask questions about their lives. If you can, offer your assistance in their case but be careful not to make any promises. Committing to support a prisoner is different from agreeing to organize their defence.
The current prison system attempts to isolate prisoners from the outside world: be a solid connection for them. Don’t take on too many commitments at once. Writing detailed and interesting letters to one or two prisoners is better than having brief meaningless correspondences with 12. It’s time consuming to write letters, but well worth it. Get a feel for who you’re writing to and tailor your letters to their interests and hobbies.
Don’t feel pressured to commit to writing to a prisoner for the length of their entire sentence. Letters break the monotony of prison life and any kind words are appreciated. Don’t be surprised if a prisoner is too busy or can’t always respond quickly to your letter.
Be careful when writing letters. Expect that what you write will be screened by guards, other prisoners and CSIS officials. You can’t be too careful. Write with discretion. Date all of your letters to keep a paper trail. Think about anything you write being used against you, your community or the prisoner. Ask the prisoner about any regulations when sending mail, what they can and can’t receive.
There’s one thing all prisoners need: money. The Canadian justice system is far from free. Legal fees quickly pile up. Take some of the pressure off prisoners by holding a fundraiser. Start by working with the prisoner to create an account for the money to go into. This can mean helping them set up a bank account, a P.O Box where checks can be sent or an online account. Make sure the prisoner has full access and control of all the money sent to support her/him. Prisoners still have basic expenses, like postage to cover.
When organizing a fundraiser, don’t underestimate your community or the kindness of strangers. Thousands of dollars have been raised through zine sales, poetry slams or other small scale fundraisers.
Try to connect with other prisoner rights groups in your area. They may have other ideas about how to support prisoners and petition for their release.