Prison abolition groups send letters, messages to incarcerated individuals

Yunkyo Kim, Assistant Campus Editor

On the first Tuesday of every month, students have gathered at the Multicultural Center to package handwritten letters, zines and messages of support.

These are collected and shipped out around the United States to incarcerated individuals — most of them non-white and low-income.

The Northwestern University Student-Prisoner Correspondence Night hosted its first regular event of the year on Tuesday. It was sponsored by the Rogers Park Prisoner Letter Writing Coalition, a local letter-writing meetup for incarceration solidarity, and Living in Color, a Northwestern student group promoting artistic expression for queer students of color. Both organizations support prison abolition.

“(The event) is abolition first,” said Eliza Gonring, a SESP junior and Living in Color organizer. “As much as we do enjoy being able to engage with people on the inside, ultimately we want them to be out.”

The United States maintains the world’s highest rate of incarceration, according to the Sentencing Project. In the past 40 years, the number of people in prisons increased by 500 percent, with 2.2 million incarcerated as of 2017. People of color disproportionately make up the prison population, at 67 percent.

Gonring said she wanted to assist people in the prison system this past year, hoping to contribute to an educational institution with many resources. She said she sought out local organizations with another student and reached out to a prison letter writing coalition only a few months before.

The graduate student, who requested anonymity due to safety concerns, said they became active in prison abolitionism after their family members were involved in the Pelican Bay hunger strikes, in which California inmates protested long-term solitary confinement and prison conditions. Within the past few years, they became more interested in correspondence and political education for imprisoned people and started hosting letter writing events in collaboration with other local organizations.

“It’s important to create spaces where folks can get together and talk about these things,” the student said.

Meeting for the second time on Northwestern’s campus, students said they hoped to spur impactful change on the prison abolitionist movement through correspondence.

Imani Harris, a Medill sophomore who attended both events, said she has relatives currently in prisons and that she uses letters to communicate with her them.

“Sometimes I write to them,” Harris said. “So I just want to keep them on my mind and remember that they exist, and even though I can’t see them and hear them, that they are oppressed as hell.”

Some students said they already received responses after sending out the first round of letters last quarter. Gonring, who recently received a reply, said she knew that this communication could lead to long-term correspondence.

Depending on the success of the monthly meetup, the group has plans to expand. While Living in Color is currently focused on letter-writing, they may expand by hosting teach-ins and skill-building activities, Gonring said.

“It’s especially important to not only support prisoners with your words but to be able to make sure they’re not lost once they get behind the walls,” Gonring said. “It’s really easy to feel like society has turned against you once you are there.”

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