Notes of Encouragement to Individuals in Solitary Confinement
The experience of a California congregation in sending cards and notes to prisoners in solitary confinement may inspire people in other states to replicate the project in their own congregation.
In December 2011, parishioners at All Saints Church in Pasadena, CA, sent cards and notes to 60 inmates in the solitary confinement cells - called Security Housing Units (SHU) - at Pelican Bay and Corcoran State Prisons, where many prisoners had participated in hunger strikes earlier in the year. Parishioners were invited to sign the cards at the All Saint Church's "Action Table" where they also had the opportunity to sign the NRCAT statement against solitary confinement (signing the NRCAT statement was mentioned in the cards). A note from the priest who is the Director of Peace and Justice was also enclosed with the card.
The congregation was surprised and overwhelmed by receiving a large number of very moving letters from the prisoners, expressing their gratitude. Read excerpts from some of these responses here. These letters have kept the issue of solitary confinement very much alive for staff and parishioners, and another opportunity for writing notes was provided in April.
Sending cards to individuals in solitary confinement can be done year-round, however, your congregation may consider organizing a letter-writing opportunity during a religious holiday or to mark UN Human Rights Day on December 10th. Guidelines for organizing a letter-writing opportunity in your congregation are provided in this pdf and below:
A first step in preparing for this activity is establishing a relationship with a person or group that is working with prisoners in solitary confinement in your state. In most states, there will be prisoner advocacy organizations, prison ministries or groups of prisoner family members.
If these relationships haven’t yet been established, you might reach out to people in your faith group who are involved in prison ministry in your state or conduct research to identify groups that are working with prisoners and their families. Building relationships of trust could take time. So you’ll need to establish these relationships and know that you have a list of prisoners that you to whom you can write before scheduling this letter-writing activity. You should also be mindful of confidentiality issues – your contact should obtain permission to share addresses from the prisoners to whom she or he corresponds before sharing a list with you.
Once you have a list of prisoner names and addresses, you can proceed, as follows:
- Call the mailroom in the prisons where you intend to send letters, and ask about the specific guidelines and restrictions for mail.
- You might consider the procedure that was followed in the letter-writing at the California parish. Sticky notes with first names were attached to cards, so that the messages could be personalized. Only the person coordinating the activity had access to the last names and addresses.
- Promote this activity within the your congregation.
- Use stationery or cards that convey sensitivity to the circumstances of men and women in solitary confinement.
For example, use cards with nature scenes or plain stationery without preprinted messages.
- Use the name and address of your faith community as the return address, rather than a personal address.
Individuals signing the card should use first names only.
- Provide suggested message points that people could use in writing their notes.
- Consider enclosing a photocopied message from your pastor, rabbi, imam or other religious leader.
The message from the member or faith leader should provide context for the card. For example, indicate how the inmate’s name and address were obtained, and why this person is receiving the card or letter.
- Review each note before mailing to make sure each note is sensitive both to the circumstances of inmates in solitary confinement and to the fact that all incoming mail is reviewed by prison staff.
For further information about the experience and organization of the letter-writing at All Saints, Pasadena, contact NRCAT board member Virginia Classick, firstname.lastname@example.org or 818-255-0410.