Survived & Punished NY (S&P NY) is the New York chapter of Survived & Punished, a national organization that seeks to end the criminalization of survivors of gender violence. Red, an organizer with both S&P NY and the Support Ho(s)e Collective, helped draft the group’s best practices and guides for letting writing. S&P NY has hosted in-person group letter writing events for members to connect with one another as they correspond with those inside. While they have had to take these events online due to the pandemic, participation has only increased.
“Letter writing is transformative,” wrote Red in an email to Prism. “Writing letters and building relationships with those inside spits in the face of the violent isolation that is incarceration. We are cultivating comradeship in the face of state violence. Letter writing is harm reduction, it demonstrates to the [correctional officers] that our comrades have people outside who will rally around them. It demonstrates to fellow incarcerated people that there is hope being organized and there are [folks] who will have their backs because letters and messages are shared, passed around and ripple beyond the first individual who receives one.”
Red notes that the benefits of letter writing programs are immense and are shared by those who participate both inside and outside. For those inside, it serves as a reminder that there are people who “care and will fight for their freedom and well-being.” For those on the outside, letter writing can put real names and stories onto the issues that they are advocating around.
“Building alongside criminalized survivors puts our politics in practice,” wrote Red. “It makes clear that we aren’t organizing around nameless oceans of statistics or cases but rather people, largely women, femmes and GNC [folks] of color, Black and Indigenous people, queer and trans survivors, who’ve been punished for their (violent) acts of self-love.”
Letter writing also provides an alternative to what S&P NY describes as the “violence and dis-connection of prison communication technology,” like video visits, emails, and phone calls provided by companies like GTL Network and Securus. In addition to these platforms’ high cost, low quality, and the fact that they are subject to surveillance, Red also notes that a lack of knowledge about how to even set up accounts can be barriers to accessing them and getting connected with loved ones.
Much like other organizers that foster connection through pen pal programs, Red sees the process of letter writing as a way to put their ethics of abolition into practice and undermine the dehumanization that incarceration inherently imposes.
“We are all shaped and changed by the relationships we choose to build and cultivate,” wrote Red. “The conscious act of writing, listening and learning alongside someone who’s incarcerated (ie someone who’s surviving state violence in a very specific way daily) is an act of rejecting the invisibilizing and disappearing work of the prison. When we intentionally decide on practicing radical empathy and solidarity we ourselves move toward healing.”
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September 9th, 2020 by Tamar Sarai Davis