Befriending animal rights prisoners by visiting or writing letters provides them with a connection to the outside world and assures them they are not abandoned. Prisoners desire compassion and understanding like other people. And people who risks jail for a cause, no matter whether you think their actions were right or wrong, clear or confused, are worthy of respect on humanitarian grounds. Befriending them is not necessarily endorsing their law-breaking, like befriending a fine dodger does not mean you back fine dodging.
Animal Rights Prisoners
The animal rights movement attracts all sorts of people and a few have broken the law in 'acts of conscience' and landed in jail. Among the first animal rights activists to feel the weight of the law in 1970's Britain, were Robin Howard, convicted of damaging two boats used for hunting seals, and Ronnie Lee and Cliff Goodman, jailed for three years for damaging animal research equipment (according to the Animal Liberation Front).
Sentences of up to twelve years for some convicted animal rights activists are startlingly disproportionately lengthy when measured against convictions for crimes such as homicide and rape. The worst conception of animal rights prisoners is that they are dangerous extremists and terrorists who must be locked away to protect the public (see Extremism and Terrorism). Another view is that they are caring individuals who risked their liberty to help animals. Either way, you may want to support animal rights prisoners and there are good reasons for doing so.
Finding Prisoners to Support
Animal rights prisoners come and go as sentences expire. Therefore search the Web for the most recent information. Key into a search engine “animal rights prisoner support”. A few web sites list animal rights prisoners in different countries and provide links to other relevant web sites. One site is the North American Animal Liberation Press Office. Pick out a prisoner and make sure they are still doing time. If you intend to visit make sure your prisoner is near where you live.
Writing a letter will be the easiest first step to support a prisoner. Even when writing to a complete stranger and never getting beyond sending only one letter, receiving it can be a pleasant distraction from a tedious existence for the prisoner. However, do not expect your prisoner to reply quickly, if at all. Nor should you feel obligated to correspond for the whole of their jail sentence. Should they reply, write only as many letters that you feel like sending. It is also better to cultivate a letter writing relationship with just one prisoner than to write cursorily to several prisoners and then give up because of the inconvenience of writing so many letters.
Your first letter could amount to just a few lines. Writing it might be difficult so here are some suggestions:
- Write where you found your prisoner's details.
- Say why you are writing, eg because you wish to be active in animal rights, humanitarian issues or just seeking a temporary pen pal.
- Describe some generalities about your life.
- Ask them what life is like in prison and if they have plans for the future.
- Ask if you can offer some assistance, eg by sending them articles they lack.
- Close by writing that you hope your prisoner will reply but will not be offended if they do not respond.
Some letter writing suggestions:
- Write your name and address on your envelopes in case your letters are rejected.
- Date all of your letters to keep track of them.
- Give a friend’s address if you do not want to reveal your own. (Post office box numbers do not necessarily protect you because in some cases anyone can find out the address by walking into a main post office and simply requesting it.)
- Send photos or drawings, but keep them impersonal and without sexual implications.
- List all the objects you enclose with the letter you write. Do the same if you reach the stage of sending parcels, such as toiletries. This is a check that nothing was held back from your prisoner by the authorities.
- Be frank with your prisoner about what you are and are not ready to do (like write indefinitely or send a hacksaw blade).
- Know your prison's rules about letter writing. Ask the prison for a copy of the guidelines for visitors and prisoners.
And some letter writing proscriptions:
- Do not be critical, your prisoner has already been condemned by the law. Give your support helpfully and unconditionally, even if your prisoner is cynical or hostile.
- Do not encourage your prisoner to impose on you or be manipulative. Should they do that, tell them you will break off relations if they persist.
- Do not build false hopes with your prisoner, such as by making promises you might not keep.
- Do not write anything compromising. Escape plans and details of the prison’s security are out, as is writing racially offensive or obscene messages. The jailers may read your letters routinely and can stop them. Much the same applies to phone calls you may make to your prisoner. Prison staff can listen in on landlines.
There may come a time when you want to visit your prisoner. Never just turn up. Always ask your prisoner in advance if they would like a visit. Notify the prison that you wish to visit and be sure to get a copy of their regulations for visitors. Find out the prison’s visiting rules, such as if they permit handing prisoners anything, and stick to them. Take identification with you to show the jailers you are who you claim to be. Make sure you arrive well before time to avoid disappointing your prisoner with a non-visit because of some unexpected mishap. Expect you might be searched.
A prison does not necessarily cater for all the needs of its prisoners. Your prisoner may lack commodities like food, stationery, magazines, books or the travel costs for their family and friends to visit them. So you could ask them if they would like you to fundraise for them. Of course, you are under no obligation to raise funds, but if you are into fundraising then you might consider it. Or, instead, you might chip in now and then and buy them the odd item from your own pocket.
Life in prison for months or years can be grey, but a befriender from the outside world can bring a prisoner a ray of sunshine and encouragement for better days ahead. However, once you have begun to support a prisoner, if get concerned about the writing or visiting system, do not keep things to yourself but tell your prisoner and sort them out with the prison authorities.
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