Mail Restrictions Raise the Question: What Makes Us Human?

by Urszula Wislanka
Most progressive reports from prisons concentrate on the horrific abuses perpetrated against prisoners. These abuses are pervasive, shocking and deserve a lot more exposure and attention than they are actually getting. However, concentrating on the gross abuses one might be led to believe that they are isolated incidents that could be reformed. One might then miss what is wrong with the whole “principle” that governs prisons.
At my recent visit to Valley State Prison for Women in Chowchilla, Ca., inmates talked about the fact that without fail every woman prisoner speaks about the hardship imposed by the delays in getting mail. The guards have a polcy of opening (and thus presumably reading) all prisoners’ mail before they deliver it. A letter that the post office delivers in a day, takes 7-10 days to be delivered to prisoners. Sometimes mail is sent back to the sender and the prisoner is only notified that mail came for her and was sent back.
Mail is the women’s primary link to their families, loved ones, anyone they care about. Delaying mail aims at severing the most meaningful social ties. As an ex-prisoner pointed out in a Women’s Review of Books article, “Aristotle said we’re all political animals, political in the sense of social, that we need other people.” She continued, “The stronger the societal tie, the less likely I am to break it.” In other words, what makes us human are relations with other human beings. They reinforce our humanity. Denial of those connections is a direct denial of our humanity.
Once conceived of in this way, mail delay is not just a petty inconvenience. It exposes the institution’s systematic denial of what is fundamental to women’s humanity, not only in the horrific abuses routinely perpetrated there, but in their very policies. It shows the lie of Teena Farmon’s (CCWF’s warden) statement that “I work for a department that wishes to be, wants to be, a humane organization…. ”
VSPW opened only 2 years ago. It was built as the women’s equivalent of the infamous Pelican Bay prison. Long-term prisoners, who have served in several other institutions, complain that it is the most sterile environment they have experienced. They cannot have any pictures displayed anywhere in the cell, they have lockers for all of their personal possessions and they must be in that locker at all times unless they are being actually used. There are very frequent inspections. If the guard sees a cup on a table and a woman is not actually drinking from it, it will be confiscated. If she puts the book she is reading on her bed and not actually holding it in her hand, the book will be confiscated. All of these rules are further ways of denying women’s humanity and the need to make the space one’s own.
The prisoners’ complaints point to the fact that these are not just “isolated incidents” of abuse but indicative of the whole prison system which must be abolished. Yet the dehumanizing prison system is not out of place in this anti-human society. It is its logical extreme, just as the logical conclusion of denial of one’s humanity is the death penalty. Abolition of prisons is a step towards transforming this whole society.