from The Peak – The Independent Student Newspaper of Simon Fraser University
May 30, 2011
By Megan Bronson
When I hear from my brother, it’s usually via snail mail. We see very little of each other because of distance. If I made the necessary arrangements I could hop in a car and head out to PoCo for a quick visit, but we find it easier to converse through letters. My brother — beautiful and intelligent, thief, addict, and prisoner — is the reason why I started Letters for the Inside (LFTI). LFTI is a permanent project run out of SFU’s student-based social justice resource centre (SFPIRG), that responds to prisoners’ requests for information.
Last semester there were statements of concern written in this newspaper about the legitimacy of a program that “uses SFU research facilities to do research for, um, your local rapists, thieves, and all-around criminals” [SFPIRG a partisan money-waster, October 12]. Although I was tempted to write a brief, fiery response exposing the stereotypical and fear-based concerns expressed in that article, I thought it best to take up a little more space to explain the motivation for and objectives of LFTI. Hopefully this will address some of the concerns or questions students may have about LFTI’s mandate and services.
The year I started college my brother, Caleb, was serving out a sentence of two years less a day at the Fraser Regional Correctional Facility in Haney. While I was swimming in library and Internet (re)sources, books, and mags, my brother couldn’t get his hands on a decent paperback, let alone research materials. The inequality of our access to information struck me as unjust so I wrote to him asking if there was anything I could get to him on the inside from the outside. The inaugural request was an eclectic one: a few E.E. Cummings poems, some Tom Waits lyrics, Sudoku puzzles (advanced), and a host of trade school application forms for schools in the Lower Mainland. Since that first correspondence in 2004, LFTI has responded to nearly 500 letters like Caleb’s from prisoners all over Canada.
LFTI is a very straightforward project. Prisoners from all over Canada, but primarily B.C., write in to the program with one or several topics to be researched. Their letters are photocopied, coded, and put into binders where volunteers can find them whenever they have some free time. Volunteers read the letters and choose one that appeals to them. They research the topics using our vast library and online resources and then send the prisoner what they find. Regardless of the existence of intense stigma surrounding the demographic of folk who use our services, the program seems to be striking a chord with students interested in social justice, criminal justice issues, and information democracy. The constant growth of this program over the years, both in terms of the number of LFTI volunteers and the volume of letters received from prisoners, is indicative of its significance.
The range of requests the program has received over the years reflects the diversity and dynamism of the prison population. The content of these letters allows volunteers a rare glimpse into the personhood of prisoners; the requests themselves allow us to hear another, more personal voice from prisoners not available in mainstream media. Below is a sample of quotes taken directly from prisoners’ letters that demonstrate the wide variety of requests for information LFTI gets every week. The names of institutions and prisoners will not be published to ensure privacy.
Many letters are incredibly straightforward, asking for raw data without too much back story:
“We recently received your letter and I am happy to say that some of us here are very enthusiastic . . . and information related to the following would be of interest: I was researching LEDs as a light source but I was having problems converting photonic flux (measured in photons per meter²) to candle power or LUX. Any information related to Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) and spectral output is welcome.”
Other letters include explanations as to why the prisoner is requesting the information. Many of these requests reveal aspects of the writer’s current situation: “In the latter part of 2006 I was tested for HIV and Hep C. Five weeks went by until I was called to the prison hospital — (quote from nurse): ‘Mr.X [sic] you’ll be happy to know that you are negative for HIV, but you have been exposed to the Hep C virus. The lab says your blood type is 1 in 20,000 and can cure itself. We will call you for a re-test.’ Could you please just find me any information on a nurse’s obligation to her patient, as the two year delay in re-testing me is being blamed on a staff shortage?” It is worth noting that 30 per cent of Canadian prisoners are infected with the Hep C virus, well above the national average, according to the Canadian HIV-AIDS Legal Network, 2005. This letter was responded to by a registered nurse who volunteers for LFTI.
Still others present a very candid portrait of the writer that expresses, in part, the history of events that have led up to this request: “Inmates in general experience systemic discrimination within the penal system; however, most inmates do not have anywhere to turn and lose hope. Inmates have always been asking for a better grievance system. However, this issue seems to never make it to the table. If Correctional Service of Canada had a tough and effective grievance system with actual penalties, injustice would be a very small problem. I would appreciate it very much if you could send me anything in respect to prison-related advocacy resources.”
Almost without exception, the letters received by Letters for the Inside (LFTI) express deep gratitude for the services we provide. Rarely do the prisoners include any information about the crimes that landed them in jail, and we don’t ask. LFTI does not discriminate or limit its services based on the nature of the writer’s criminal behaviour. We do, however, have strict guidelines that limit the kinds of requests we’ll respond to. As stated in our prison outreach materials and volunteer info sheets: “Letters for the Inside does not provide pen pal services, legal consultation, or respond to requests for inappropriate information.” The content of each letter is read first by the LFTI coordinator, a part-time, student-held position. If there is any question as to the ethics of the request, the letter is forwarded to our Advisory Board, a group of academics and service providers that have a wealth of experience and expertise about the prison system and prisoner justice issues. Letters that are deemed ‘inappropriate’ by the Advisory Board receive a letter from us explaining why we can’t research their request and reiterating the services we do provide. In the five years of this program, we have received over 500 letters and red flagged approximately six.
By improving prisoners’ access to information, student volunteerism and resources can help prisoners prepare for release, provide them with literary escape, inform them about prisoner services and health care issues, or simply foster their curious minds while they serve out their sentence. Laura Kadowaki, a long time LFTI volunteer, writes “if somebody is being released from jail after having served their time, then I would much rather that person have a solid plan about their future and how they are going to find a job, where they are going to live, et cetera, and I think a person who has a solid plan like that is going to be much less likely to be tempted to turn to crime again.”
For students, LFTI is one project amongst many at SFPIRG and other campus groups that offers meaningful volunteer opportunities to students and community members (and we all know how important volunteerism is for grant applications, meeting new people, and community development alike). Given that nearly 1,000 SFU students study some aspect of the criminal justice system, offering relevant volunteer opportunities in their field of study is important. Many of our current volunteer researchers hail from this program and members of our Advisory Board teach in that program. Since landing at SFPIRG, LFTI has trained over 60 volunteer researchers including undergraduate, masters, and doctoral students from a range of disciplines, a former Corrections Officer, and community members who operate as satellite volunteers through email correspondence.
The services provided by LFTI should not be mined for a political agenda but should instead be evaluated based on the opportunities they provide for SFU students and members of our wider community without discriminating against incarcerated persons. One of our volunteer researchers, Tony Oliver writes, “As a former Corrections Officer and Provincial Sheriff, I can attest to the fact that SFPIRG is doing vital work in B.C.’s prisons. I am not a left-leaning fascist as implied. I do not condone criminal acts of any type; I have devoted seven years of my life to fighting crime. LFTI provides a meaningful opportunity for SFU and its students to share the higher learning we access, recognizing that humanity is not perfect.”
LFTI coordinators do not push ‘far-left thinking’ on our volunteer researchers, or anyone for that matter. Our volunteer training sessions focus on the issue of prisoners’ access to information and not on partisan perspectives of our corrections’ system.
The LFTI project mobilizes student resources (a small percentage of the $1.50 to $3.00 fee collected by SFPIRG, as well as SFU library resources) for engaging volunteer opportunities for students and for our fellow community members serving time in Canadian prisons. Hannah Carpendale, a volunteer researcher since 2008, writes that, “as students, and even as relatively privileged members of the wider community, we often forget what a wealth of resources we have available — resources that are denied to many, such as those within the prison system.”
Letters for the Inside, is a project run out of the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG), SFU’s student-based social justice resource centre. New volunteers are always welcome. More info on the project visit http://www.sfpirg.ca or email Megan Branson at firstname.lastname@example.org ▪