Lancaster Avenue: Human Rights Coalition Starts Letter Writing Night to Prisoners

In the little room of the Lancaster Avenue Autonomous Space, three members of the Human Rights Coalition focused on the papers in front of them.

HRC Facilitator, Patricia Vickers turned to member Karen Lee and exclaimed, “Hey, this one’s from your son’s prison!”

A brief silence followed, and Vickers continued, “It’s not him.”

Karen Lee holds up one of many folders containing hundreds of letters she has written to various politicians, organizations, and prisoners since 2007.
Karen Lee holds up one of many folders containing hundreds of letters she has written to various politicians, organizations, and prisoners since 2007.

Monday night was the reincarnation of HRC’s “Write On! Prison Letter Writing Nights.” The event involves the reading and answering of hundreds of letters sent mostly from prisoners in Pennsylvania state prisons, but also includes mail from prisons all over the country. The letters ask for advice, ask for help, or maybe even serve as documentation of any abuse inflicted by prison guards. HRC documents any incidents in a regularly updated log.

The weekly event was temporarily suspended last year but was held every Wednesday night for two years before. Because of the suspension, the letters began to add up, so the event was reinstated. Just like before, the night allows for anyone – with or without prison ties – to volunteer their time and respond to inmates.

Letters from prisons all around the country await answers.
Letters from prisons all around the country await answers.

HRC was initially formed in 2001 with prisoners’ families in mind.

“It’s a little bit better now,” Vickers explained. “But back then, it was more of a stigma. It’s something that you don’t go around and broadcast to everybody. I, for one, felt like I didn’t have anyone to talk to who wouldn’t be judgmental. But when we started, there were other people who were in my situation. Being with families and other people in HRC, I felt like it was okay to care about my son without being judged. ”

As testament to that, and as an act of support, members will take days to be present at any hearings or court dates an inmate has. Currently on their calendar is a date to be at the Luzerne County Courthouse beginning May 5.  Six Prisoners in the institution commonly known as SCI Dallas were charged with starting a riot in April 2010 in response to beatings. The prisoners covered their cell doors and windows with bedding in protest to draw attention to prison abuse. According to the letters written by inmates since then, the guards put on their riot gear and treated the situation as such. Five of the original six protesters have remained in solitary confinement since 2010. HRC believes being in court and giving support for the Dallas prisoners will help bring the harsh realities of solitary confinement to the attention of the public.

“Just the callousness in which a judge might react to the whole situation, it just really opened up my eyes to how serious of an issue this is,” Lee explained. “From getting involved with HRC, and getting the letters we receive of abuse, it was just more apparent that solitary confinement was much more prevalent a problem than what people realize. It’s an issue that really needs to be addressed.”

HRC Member, Matt Graber, replies to letters.
HRC member, Matt Graber, replies to letters.

Along with the letter writing nights, the online prison log and hearing support, HRC puts out a quarterly newspaper called The Movement.  The publication is sent out to families and inmates and contains news on events and legislation in the prison system.  Two major themes that show up in the newsletter are updates in policies on solitary confinement and any steps taken towards the banishment of juvenile life sentences.

“You may not know this,” explained Karen Ali, another HRC member. “In Pennsylvania, the life sentence is what it is. It’s for the rest of your life and there is no parole eligibility. We’ve been working towards trying to change that.”

Because of the publication’s confrontational nature, it is not uncommon for it to be kept from inmates or censored.

“We take it as a compliment when the prisons censor our literature, when they don’t let inmates have it, or delay its arrival,” Vickers beamed. “That’s when we know we’re on to something, that we’ve done something right.”

At the present, the organization is run by a small group of individuals, made up mostly of family members. However, there are individuals in the Human Rights Coalition that have absolutely no ties with the prison, except for their concern for the inmates’ well-being.  They are all volunteers.

Text, images and video by Milena Corredor

1 Comment

  1. Is there anyway I can get involved in your program?(volunteer I mean)
    My name is Christina West

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