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Answering the call

Two Quakers reflect on their volunteer work responding to letters from people in prison

Writing letters to people in prison
Writing letters to people in prison Photo: Echoes of incarceration / AFSC

All photos taken by Echoes of Incarceration.

Read, respond, fold, stamp, mail. This is how we answer the call for social justice. As members of the community of Friends, we knew that AFSC could help us fulfil that special type of quiet activism best suited for us as seniors, so we joined AFSC in accompanying those behind prison walls.

Every year, AFSC receives thousands of letters from people in prisons, jails and detention centers across the country. The contents vary: Some are simply asking for reading material and other resources while others are complex and heart wrenching. A letter, from a person in Arizona, was filled with such anger and frustration, we struggled how to respond. After nearly three weeks of reflection we wrote back apologizing for our delayed response and giving the strongest words of comfort we could muster.

Beverly and James pass letters to one another

Another man wrote asking us to help him understand what the judge meant by “running his sentences consecutively” and, why people are telling him he had 224 years to go. With each letter, we gain more and more clarity into the harshness of America’s criminal justice system. We hear from teenagers, sentenced to 30 years to life, or, a man in his late 60s—with another 75 years to serve; men who have served 30-plus years already and have been before the parole board six or more times only to be repeatedly denied.

We also realize that these people, fellow human beings, have lost contact with their families completely, so no visits, no letters, ever. Many are in solitary, for years, so one worries about their mental state. Some are on death row. All are lonely, very lonely.

Beverly prepares a letter

And while some, understandably, are angry and bitter, most of them are apathetic, or simply, beaten. Many have sought comfort in religion.  Many are grateful for any help we can offer, however slight. Many are resigned. Some have given up hope. They all have stories, but too often, the stories overlap—not being wanted, little education, poverty, abuse, a need to survive somehow.

But in the main, they are philosophical. Some are even cheerful. Was the man writing indignantly about the violation of his human rights–he said he couldn’t get a signal on his cell “phone!”—just pulling our leg? We may never know, but does it really matter?

One poignant letter that stuck us both was from a man who’d been in prison for over 20 years, and our letter to him was the first time his name had been lifted up at mail call. He shared with us that he now felt that he mattered.

Letters to post

As Friends, we are called to many kinds of service in the criminal justice system. Such service is undertaken in order to help heal all involved in community conflict while challenging the monster of mass incarceration and its many tentacles. In each letter we receive, we hear the harmfulness of the system and in each response, we strive to serve, consistent with our Quaker values and testimonies.

About the Authors

Beverly Archibald is a member of Manhattan Monthly Meeting since 2003 and has volunteered with AFSC as a letter writer and “camp mom” for 2 years.

James Shipside is a British Quaker and a member of Cambridge Meeting in the United Kingdom. He travels to the New York twice a year and shares him time volunteering with AFSC and attending Quaker meetings at Woodbourne Prison.

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