In early 2006, I began working on a piece on prison-based activism for the music and politics magazine Punk Planet.I wanted to write about action happening on the inside, action that might not be getting any attention beyond the walls, and I began writing to people in prison to find out what they were thinking.
he term “pen pal”—sweetly alliterative and quaint—may evoke images of doomed summer camp relationships, international exchange student assignments, and 1950s schoolgirls writing letters to soldiers with fountain pens.
But in this country, which locks up more than 2.4 million people and enjoys the title of most incarcerated nation in the world, the practice of pen-palling takes on a pragmatic purpose: It links those behind bars to the outside world.
Sometimes, a piercing phrase will spring up out of the envelope—a truth that will never leave my mind.
At other times, a prisoner will contribute a vital bit of information that proves unavailable anywhere else.
So I asked what life was like in Polunsky, what protest actions he had planned for the future, and whether he had any appeals left to fight his sentence. My string of questions began wearing itself ragged.
I was repeating myself, struggling to avoid the one topic that burned at the forefront of my mind and the tip of my pen. I tried to send him copies of Punk Planet; they didn’t get through inspection. He wrote, “The biggest part of being an activist is reaching out and instilling the spirit of revolution and resistance in our fellows, to break the herd mentality…you place us into a situation where all the fuel is already there, and all it needs is a spark.”I wrote, “I am so impressed with all you are doing! You’re dying.” We traversed light, safe, death-free discussion terrain: Chicago bookstores, my work at Punk Planet, the merits of Mountain Dew (which he loved and I hated).
Often, though, the “use” of pen-palship is not in the particulars of what is being communicated, but in the act of communicating.
Prison is built on a logic of isolation and disconnection.
Letters between pen pals are almost always exchanged for the opposite purpose and with the opposite effect: connection.
The act of pen-palling mirrors the mindset shift that will be necessary to rethink how our society “does justice” on a much larger scale.
I soon developed an ongoing correspondence with my first prison pen pal, Steven Michael Woods, who was on death row in Texas.