The image is of many shapes and sizes of envelopes in different shades of white.

Featured, Roddenberry Fellowship

Communication is a Privilege for Prisoners

Communication is a Privilege for Prisoners 

Amani Sawari  | June 7, 2019


When I open a letter from someone on the inside a sense of gratitude washes over me. I can’t help but think about the cost of the journal that they tore the sheet of paper from in order to share their thoughts with me. I think about the cost of the stamp that’s often worth half of their day’s wages if they have the privilege of a paying job at all. With the cost of stamps rising and the wages for prisoners hovering at less than a dime an hour, my mind always brings me to think about those little things. I wonder about the pen that they used if it’s their only one if it was one they had to borrow and I’m grateful that they used the little resources that they have to share their thoughts, ideas, and appreciation with me in writing.


To know that people support my work is an amazing feeling, especially when those people’s support comes with such a cost. The costs aren’t just monetary, they’re also social and emotional. I’ve had people lose access to making phone calls for weeks just for talking on the phone with me. I’ve gotten letters from incarcerated students struck with fear after being threatened with their dismissal from their college program for writing me. Another prisoner lost his job after receiving one of my newsletters and passing it around to his peers. Usually, these threats from officials are blanketed under the illusion of maintaining ‘safety’ or a prisoner’s consequence for ‘starting a riot’. Prisoners are never safe in prison, yet their attempt to work together to make the facility more comfortable for them is sadly always seen as a threat by officials. It’s an interesting paradox that prisoners’ human rights activists are constantly learning to navigate as conditions and policies change.


Often, like many prison rights activists, I am seen as a danger to the prison system that I fight against. So much so, that a prisoner making contact to an organizer on the outside could risk their well-being on the inside. So, again when I receive a letter with someone’s support I feel extreme gratitude. Every time I check my P.O. Box it feels like Christmas. Not the Christmas feeling you felt as a child when you believed in Santa, more like the Christmas feeling you got after you learned about the reality behind the fantasy and appreciated all the effort that went into getting that gift to you. Every letter is a gift to me of which much thought and effort brought it to fruition. So I feel privileged and honored when I turn the key to my mailbox to retrieve an armful of letters from people across the country. Their words are filled with the inspiration that continues to fuel my work.


There’s absolutely nothing dangerous about what I do for incarcerated activists. I connect the dots between those on the inside in need of support and those on the outside eager to help. The only entity that would consider this work to be dangerous would be a system committed to keeping people oppressed and voiceless. The Right2Vote Campaign is committed to the safety and security of imprisoned people through working to ensure that all citizens, regardless of their incarceration status, are able to hold those political officials that are responsible to their well-being accountable. Currently, there is no way for incarcerated citizens to ensure that their voice is heard. It’s obvious that the United States criminal justice departments have the lowest standards of rehabilitation and corrections of any developed nation and our goal as activists on both sides of the wall are to raise those standards for the benefit of all society. Everyone is impacted by gross injustice, from prisoners to their families, to the officials, guards and all the communities from which their connected.


When I think about the work that I do I feel pride, not danger. I feel proud that I have the courage to pick up the torch to fight for dignity and liberation that’s burned in the hands of freedom fighters for centuries. There’s nothing I want more than to be able to pass it on with confidence knowing that I brought it further than my own expectations.


About the Author

Amani Sawari is a 2019 Roddenberry Fellow, Amani is a writer and founder of the site sawarimi.org. She was also selected as Jailhouse Lawyers Speak’s spokesperson for the 2018 National Prison Strike. Learn more about her work here.