Black August, Letter Writing and the ‘Harm Reduction’ Administration

There are four major components in the yearly commemorations of Black August: study, fast, train, and fight. People are encouraged to study the works and words of former and current political and politicized prisoners. People are encouraged to fast from sunrise to sunset. People are encouraged to train and become more physically active. People are encouraged to fight against the system. However, one of the lesser centered but equally important aspects of Black August is letter writing. 

Nearly a half-century ago, Gresham Sykes wrote in The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison that, “life in the maximum-security prison is depriving or frustrating extreme”. Hardly anything has changed to alter that. The prison system thrives on the exploitation and over-policing of poor colonized communities. These communities have proven to be the backbone of the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC), substituting resources for punishment and producing exploited and incarcerated ‘workers’. For the people trapped inside the confines of the prison walls, this division, and separation from the larger community is a part of their undoing and ultimately detrimental not just to their physical health, but their mental health, as well. 

One defense against this form of dehumanization is maintaining contact between the people on the outside and inside of the prison walls. As we watch our veterans age away and as more and more “activists” are finding themselves trapped within the PIC, we must emphasize the importance of letter writing.  Letter writing is not just a high-impact form of solidarity, but a low-cost one, as well. Additionally, it serves as an alert to these institutions. It signals that people are watching. These institutions are made less empowered to harm and neglect prisoners when they know the people on the outside are paying close attention. 

Letter writing, a very rarely emphasized yet important aspect of Black August, is now finding itself at risk thanks to the Biden administration. Although this began as a one-year pilot program started under the Trump administration in March 2020, Biden’s latest crackdown on private prisons has made space for a company called Smart Communications to maintain an exclusive pilot program with the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) called MailGuard. MailGuard eliminates nonlegal forms of physical mail in federal prison facilities by transferring it to paper printouts or electronic files accessed through tablets or kiosks.

The BOP isn’t the first to use MailGuard, but the precedent being set here is a dangerous one.  If the federal system starts replacing letters from home with scanned copies, undoubtedly more states will follow. The implementation of this program is in opposition to Biden’s first 100 days pledge to get profiteers out of the criminal justice system. While praised for promising to “end private prisons”,  Biden is helping a private contracting company get rich. The free scans offered to prisoners are not enough to overlook the future profits to be made by Smart Communications.  The company also offers incarcerated people the option of exorbitantly priced paid services like email or phone calls — paid service alternatives this program will ultimately push prisoners, especially those with visual impairments or aging, to become dependent on.

Despite the popular rhetoric and focus on private prisons being “for-profit”, all prisons are “for-profit” through a network of subcontractors. This is true regarding food, medicine, telecommunications, banking, and almost every other service for those incarcerated. This new policy by the Biden administration, however, is just more of the same cruel punishment those on the inside, as well as those on the outside, face. These changes are being made to be seen as a rational justification to how perpetrators of crime are viewed— as needing to be detached and removed completely from society. 

It is not enough to commemorate Black August by lifting the names of the more popularized political and politicized prisoners. We must be actively engaged in the fight against what produces prisoners as well as actively engaged in the fight against the prison industrial complex and its overt cruelty in spite of the “harm reduction” promised. 

Sign the petition to protect prison mail! 

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.