by Katharine Blake McFarland
Nowadays, fewer and fewer occasions require the traditional letter, sent through the postal service. This is especially true in the professional context, where time is always of the essence, or at least perceived to be. But during my second year of law school, I worked at the ACLU's National Prison Project, an organization that protects the constitutional rights of prisoners—men and women ill-positioned to defend their own rights and about whom society seems content to forget—and in addition to writing and editing motions and court communications, I also read hundreds of letters. Letters written by hand, with a pencil, on a piece of paper.
The letters I read were from men incarcerated in Mississippi prisons, clients from a case that had settled years earlier. The continuing effort was to ensure these facilities' were making the changes the Judge had ordered in the consent decree. NPP attorneys made trips to these facilities themselves, but in between trips, we relied on reports from clients on the inside. These reports, though entirely urgent, could be sent only by mail.
Without exception, the letters looked dirty and smelled unmistakably institutional. A mustiness mixed with old prison food (I have eaten prison food, so you will have to trust me). I was supposed to be skimming the letters for abuses to catalog on a spreadsheet, but I have never been good at skimming. Instead, I shut the door to my office and disappeared into the pencil-written paragraphs. I heard each man's voice; I saw his hand moving across the paper. Sometimes I looked him up based on his inmate number, to learn what he was in for. Rape, murder, burglary. I became so immersed in these letters that when someone knocked on my door or the phone rang, I would startle and shake myself back to reality. My reality, that is. Well-lit, clean and safe.
The letters told a different reality: sweltering cells rife with rats, mice, and fire ants; broken bones from run-ins with under-trained, over-worked guards, too quick to use force, pepper spray, and a host of racial epithets and vulgar sexual innuendo, even (especially) against inmates with extreme mental illness; reading materials unconstitutionally confiscated; broken plumbing (“ping-pong toilets,” as the inmates called them) and flooded cells; medications unprescribed or overprescribed, resulting in sickness and incapacitation. One man woke up with a snake in his cell. One day, I read a flurry of letters, all received on the same day, describing a prisoner screaming for help. The men in neighboring cells tried to get the guards' attention. They used metal cups to bang on the heavy doors but no one responded. They did not know if this inmate was still alive. Given the track record of these facilities, this was a legitimate question.
One night I caught a cab home from work and the cab driver, who was from Saudi Arabia, asked me what I did for a living. I told him about law school and NPP and told him about the kinds of violations the organization seeks to right. “In America?” He asked. “I didn't know that kind of stuff happened here.”