Adopt a prisoner
If you're active in a group or campaign why not choose one or two prisoners to consistently support. Pass cards round meetings, send useful stuff, knock up a flyposter and get their case some publicity if they could use it, get in touch with the prisoner's support group if there is one. Of course you can take this on as an individual, too.
Writing to prisoners/sending things
NB: Since the legal challenge against the 'books ban', books can now be sent ordered and sent to prisoners from:
Prison is isolation, so contact with the outside world, letting a prisoner know s/he is not forgotten, helps break this down. Sometimes just a friendly card can boost their morale. For example, we received a letter from Herman Wallace, after sending him a card from the group. He said,
" It is quite essential that I take out a moment to express my gratitude to all the wonderful folk who sent me so much love & support in this one card. I am really touched by the intensity of energy from this card and I just had to stand up from my seat and smile. Thank you. Right now, in spite of my repressive condition you guys have made me feel GREAT!"
Writing for the first time to a complete stranger can be awkward. A card with some well wishes, a bit about who you are and asking what you can do to help is often enough. Don't expect prisoners to write back. Sometimes, the number of letters they can receive/write is restricted, or they just might not be very good a writing back.
Write on clean paper and don't re-use envelopes. Remember a return address, also on the envelope. Ask what the prisoner can have sent to them, as this varies from prison to prison. Books, pamphlets and magazines usually have to be sent from a recognised distributor/bookshop/publisher (ask at a friendly bookshop). However, since the changes in prison rules in England and Wales dating from November 1, 2013, you can no longer send any personal items into a prisoner (unless in exceptional circumstances pre-agreed with the prison itself), so tapes, videos, books [except from a limited number of HMPS approved suppliers], writing pads, zines, toiletries, etc. are no longer accepted. However, cheques or postal orders [made out to 'HMP Prison Service', with the prisoner's name and number together with your name on the back], which are credited to the prisoner's individual prison cash account, can be sent in and this can be used by them to buy personal items from the prison canteen (shop). Other countries have their own rules, so check with the prisoner themselves before trying to send anything to them - it might be a waste of your money and could, if what you send is considered to be contraband, have adverse effects on the prisoner themselves.
There is also a prisoner e-mailing service www.emailaprisoner.com, which now covers most prisons in the UK (check here for which nicks). It only costs 35p, cheaper than snail mail (though there is a 2500 characters and 50 lines maximum per message) and many prisons also allow you to pay 20p up front for the contactee to email you a reply (check here for those locations). Give it a try.
Some advice on writing to prisoners
One of the main problems that puts people off getting involved in supporting prisoners is a feeling of being intimidated about writing to a prisoner for the first time. It is very hard to write a letter to someone you don't know: people find that they don't know what to say, they feel there are things they can't talk about, or think that prisoners won't be interested in what they have to say. Well this is a problem most of us have had to get over, so we've drawn up some suggestions to help you. Obviously these aren't rigid guidelines, and we don't pretend to have solved all problems here. Different people will write different letters. hopefully they will be of some use though.
First things first
Some prisons restrict the number of letters a prisoner can write or receive, and they may have to buy stamps and envelopes: and prisoners aren't millionaires. So don't necessarily expect a reply to a card or letter. It used to be the case that many prisons allow stamps or an s.a.e to be included with a card or letter, but this again is no longer the case since November 2013 when changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges Scheme [prison discipline rules] were brought in. Letters do also get stopped, read, delayed, 'diverted'. If you suspect your letter has been or will be nicked by the screws, you can send it Recorded Delivery, which unfortunately costs a lot but then they have to open it in the prisoner's presence. Also you should put a return address, not just so the prisoner can reply (!), but also because some prisons don't allow letters without a return address. Of course it doesn't have to be your address, but be careful using PO Box numbers as some prisons don't allow these either!
Writing for the first time
Say who you are, and if it's relevant that you're from such and such a group. Some people reckon it's better to be up front about your politics as well, to give prisoners the choice to stay in contact with you or not. Say where you heard about them and their case. The first letter can be reasonably short, maybe only a postcard. Obviously when you get to know people better you'll have more to talk about. If you are writing to a "framed" prisoner, and you believe them to be innocent, it helps to say so, as it gives people confidence to know that you believe them.
Some people when they write to prisoners, are afraid to talking about their lives, what they are up to, thinking this may depress people banged up, especially prisoners with long sentences, or that they are not interested in your life. Although in some cases this may be true, on the whole a letter is the highpoint of the day for most prisoners. prison life is dead boring, and any news that livens it up, whether it's about people they know or not, is generally welcome. Especially if you didn't know them before they went to prison, they want to know about you, what your life is like etc. For people imprisoned from our movements and struggles it's vital to keep them involved in the ongoing resistance - telling them about actions, sending them magazines if they want them, discussing ideas and strategies with them. Use your head though. Some people will just want to keep their head down till they get out.
Remember that all letters are opened and looked through so don't write stuff that could endanger anyone - this doesn't mean you should be over paranoid and write one meaningless comment on the weather after the other. Be prepared to share a bit of your life to brighten up someone's on the inside.
Download [updated to take account of Nov. 2013 IEP changes]:
Writing To Prisoners Leaflet (A4)
Writing To Prisoners Leaflet (Printable A5)
Petitioning David Cameron asking him to stop being a capitalist bastard might well be futile. But writing letters to relevant places requesting something realistic such as an appeal, transfer, vegan food etc on behalf of a prisoner can help improve their chances. Prisoners who seem to be 'in the public eye' do tend to be treated better.
There is so much more than can be done, up to you and your imagination and your contact with a prisoner, such as: publicity for the case, visits, financial support, pickets of prisons.