As I’ve written before on this blog there is a ‘long littleness’ to life inside prison. Almost anything that breaks up the mind-numbing monotony can be a welcome break and receiving a positive letter filled with news or kindly words from your family or friends can make an enormous difference. A good letter can be a little glimmer of light in an otherwise dark world.
|A light in the darkness|
Officially, prisoners are encouraged to keep in contact with their families and friends in order to maintain morale and as part of the reducing reoffending agenda. It has been long recognised that cons who have strong family support on the outside are less likely to reoffend than those inmates who are released through the gate to nothing and no-one. However, the rising costs of keeping in touch do present a potential barrier to inmates who don’t have prison jobs or financial support from home.
All prisoners in UK establishments are supposed to be able to send at least one ‘weekly letter’ free of charge. These A5 folded sheets of lined writing paper come complete with an envelope and will be sent out by 2nd class post, subject to the usual checks by the prison censors’ department. In some nicks the weekly letter is pushed under each cell door, while in others it can be collected from a wing office as required. Being a wing letter orderly can be a nice, easy little job for a retired prisoner who wants to keep active by walking round the landings delivering the blank paper and envelopes to his fellow cons.
|Official free weekly letter|
I’ve been in prisons where the number of free letters an inmate can write and send each week is determined by their status within the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) system. At one Cat-B nick a con on Basic level (effectively in solitary confinement) was permitted to send one free weekly letter, while a prisoner on Standard could post out two. Those on the highest level, Enhanced, received three weekly letters. It was a small privilege, but for some cons with no source of income, it could make all the difference.
According to the rules, trying to post out more than your permitted weekly allocation of free mail could get you into trouble. However, to be honest, I never came across anyone who actually did get caught and weekly letters could be traded as low-value items by those who didn’t write (or who couldn’t) to other cons who did like to do so.
|No more stamps from families|
Prior to the introduction of the revised – and hated – IEP system on 1 November 2013, many prisons allowed families and friends to send in writing materials to prisoners, including either books of stamps or stamped addressed envelopes. This was effectively banned by the same rules that block inmates from receiving books and clean clothes from their family and friends.
Now, if you want to post a letter in addition to the free weekly one, everything needs to be purchased from the canteen sheet: writing paper, envelopes and, of course, a stamp. For people who are having to survive on as little as £2.50 a week as unemployed prisoners or £3.50 a week as retired or disabled inmates, the proportion of their tiny income that a single letter represents can be a massive sacrifice. Perhaps the more humane wing screws recognise this and turn a blind eye to cons who are penniless sending out a couple of extra free weekly letters.
Nevertheless, in a prison system that purports to value the maintaining of close family ties by prisoners as part of the strategy for reducing reoffending and encouraging resettlement, these mean IEP restrictions appear to run counter to supporting these objectives. Ironically, it also probably means that more prisoners will turn to the free 2nd class service rather than using their own stamps and writing materials. It would be interesting to know whether the overall costs of prison-funded postage have risen since prisoners’ families were blocked from sending in stamps and envelopes.
|Half of all prisoners lack literacy skills|
Being able to write letters yourself is another major bonus inside the nick. A fair number of prisoners do have serious problems with literacy and they can face serious disadvantages in trying to keep in touch with their families, especially if they lack money to buy telephone credits for the wing payphones.
In fact, recent estimates suggest that around 48 percent of inmates have literacy skills at or below Level 1 (what would normally be expected of an 11-year old child), with as many of 75 percent having some problems with writing ranging from poor spelling right through to functional illiteracy. Perhaps it’s not entirely surprising when you realise that around half of all adult prisoners have been excluded from school when they were kids.
Before I ended up in prison I rarely wrote letters by hand anymore, although my generation still learned proper handwriting at school and all my exams throughout my education (including at university) involved writing the entire papers by hand in ink. I have been personally shocked at how limited the writing skills of some undergraduates can be these days. I suppose that computers and the electronic submission of essays and coursework have played a part in this.
|Writing by hand: can it can be read?|
When I was a prisoner I was determined to write extensively to family and friends. At times, I wrote at least one letter a day, at other times more. I found that many of my friends were genuinely fascinated by my prison experiences, given that none of them had any personal experience of being banged-up. I found that I really had to relearn how to write everything by hand again following years of typing. I rediscovered the familiar ache of writer’s cramp that I’d been so aware of as a student and I found that I really needed to learn afresh how to write long letters legibly, even though my normal handwriting isn’t usually too bad.
Writing – letters, my daily diary, short stories, chapters of a future book on the anthropology of prison – occupied much of my free time, particularly when I was in closed prisons. It helped me pass the time during long hours of bang-up, particularly when my various cell-mates wanted to watch the football or other programmes that I wasn’t really interested in watching myself.
|Receiving letters from true friends|
Of course, this wasn’t just about writing letters. It was also about receiving them and I was lucky that I received at least several a week throughout the years of my sentence, sometimes a lot more. Being in prison is when you do discover who your true and loyal friends and relatives really are. Sadly, for quite a high number of prisoners a week or a month or even a year without a letter is the norm, particularly when their family has broken up or moved on, or else their loved ones have died – an increasingly common situation for many of our elderly inmates.
As I moved between prisons, I continued to stay in touch with friends I’d made by writing to them. They responded with bits of news, gossip and information about changes to the regime at their nick. Sometimes they updated me on their appeals (if they had one), on their progress towards parole or their plans after release.
There seems to be little or no restriction on sending letters between prisoners in different jails unless they are co-defendants or subject to special controls on their communications. Some prisons do have a formal approval system for inter-prison letters, but I never experienced any problems in writing to mates in other nicks.
As an Insider (peer mentor) I was also often asked by fellow prisoners to read letters that they’d received to them or to help them write a letter themselves. In some prisons cons who are literate can make a little unofficial business out of charging a small fee in kind – maybe a thin roll-up cigarette or a bar of cheap chocolate – for their ‘services’. Fortunately, since I had a decent prison job and some cash coming in from home, I never needed to ask. Sometimes I actually felt it was a privilege to be trusted enough by my fellow cons to help them deal with very personal and difficult family problems in their letters.
|Looking beyond the prison walls|
The process of writing and receiving letters offers many prisoners the chance to look beyond the walls that confine them, especially if they don’t have money to make calls from the wing payphones or their families live so far from the prison that they can’t have regular visits. Communications from family and friends, especially around Christmas and family anniversaries, can make them feel connected to the real world, as can the occasional family photograph. Prison cells across the estate have hand-drawn pictures stuck on the walls that cons have received in the post from their young kids.
On the other hand, receiving a bad letter – full of hatred, condemnation or severing ties – can be absolutely traumatic, as can letters containing tragic news: a death in the family or information about a serious illness. At times you can see broken men sobbing on their bunks as they read a letter that tells them that their world is collapsing around them, along with all their plans and hopes for the future. Some prisons do ask families to let them know of such news in advance of the letter arriving so that anti-suicide measures can be taken, but sadly many nicks just don’t have sufficient staff to monitor these situations effectively.
|Writing can free the mind in prison|
When I left prison earlier this year I took with me a large bag of letters and cards that I’d received when I was inside. They cover the whole period of my sentence and document all the highs and lows that pretty much every con will be only too familiar with. In fact, I’d say that these letters, as well as my daily diaries, are the most important items I still have from my time in prison. Every one means something to me.
Prison can be a hard and demoralising experience for many prisoners. That’s why a loving, kind or funny letter being slid under your locked and bolted cell door or handed out by a wing screw can make all the difference. Pity those who have no-one to write to them and no spark of light in their darkness.