The importance of letters to the editor

By G. Patrick Callahan, prisoner of the drug war

The drug war and the overly harsh sentencing it spawns has raged for many years without much scrutiny. State and Federal officials may have imagined their tactics would not be investigated by a sheepish public saturated by propaganda, but that trend is rapidly being reversed.

Truth is, this generation of law makers, judges and government attorneys have made a hash of the entire concept central to dispense justice, not injustice. To accomplish this, it necessitated bypassing and bulldozing constitutional guarantees, which was in large measure perfected by adopting the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, commonly referred to as the "New Law." Federal Sentencing Guidelines were cloned by most states. Law professors and a precious few judges are calling the New Law a catastrophe and even the Supreme Court, which hammered the phrase "Harmless Error" into the knife that all but gutted the Bill of Rights, has recently called into question the constitutionality of the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines. One can only wonder why it took so long, but that answer is self-evident: when sentencing practices are swept under the national rug, it's difficult for the public to comprehend the dimensions of the problem and the collateral consequences. Only when enough people realize the system requires adjustment will it get the required attention.

Many people and groups of people are working on this, and you can help. It is the small group that always stimulates social change, and we aren't asking everyone in prison to write, but rather those who can and are dedicated enough to do so. We're talking about your life here, so it would pay - and perhaps pay in a dividend of years - for you to give this your attention. While getting magazine and newspaper articles published is a tough proposition, the simple letter to the editor is not. Letters to the editor of your hometown paper or a large metropolitan paper in your area can have the effect of making people think.

Getting people to consider the damage caused by the American drug war has been hard to do, but it is finally happening and on an exponential scale. You might have noticed that no one is calling for more prison construction or for imprisoning another million Americans in their homeland. For the first time in modern history, the entire "crime" debate went missing from the presidential election. Alternatives to prison are being discussed for non-violent offenders, as is amnesty for non-violent drug law offenders who have served a portion of their sentences. These concepts must be driven deeper into the public consciousness at every opportunity.

Letters to the editors of national and international magazines can help shape opinion which can later forge helpful legislation. Once a consensus is reached among enough people, it becomes difficult to hold an unpopular status quo; change can be made, but until then we all will stay trapped by public ignorance.

A person loses many rights when he or she is incarcerated, but one of the most cherished retained is the First Amendment Right to Free Speech. You can write letters and receive mail. The exercise of your right to free speech is a powerful instrument and one that is not utilized nearly enough by the prisoner class.

The best way to succeed in getting your letter printed by a publication is to tie it to a subject the publication has made comment upon; in other words, an article or story it has recently covered and that has bearing on the drug war, mass-imprisonment or other injustice. Make your letter concise, and get directly to the point. It is a good idea to preface your letter with the subject that the publication previously covered, for example: IN RE: "Prison Overcrowding" March 20, 2001. Shorter letters get looked at first: editors will not print long, incoherent passages because print space is limited and valuable.

Be adept with the English language: "Hey, Bubba" stuff doesn't cut it, it's not cute anymore, and it reflects adversely upon you, your message and prisoners in general. End your letter with the disclaimer that you don't have a confirming telephone number because you are in a state or federal prison. Date your letter, sign it and give the editor a complete prison ID number and address. Be prepared to write several letters for each one published. You won't get everything you write printed, so accept that, and don't fall in love with your words: just go after it the next time. This isn't about blue ribbons, it's about changing minds. Even if you get rejected, remember that someone has read your letter, whether it was an editor, his assistant or the staff.

Every state and federal prison in this country should have letter writers dedicated to this effort, at least four or five for an effective cadre, because what motivates you to write might not motivate the next guy and vice versa. Here at F.C.I. Seagoville, Texas, we have a few, including Bill Hall, who has a great track record for getting the message out, and his style is worthy of note. He has had letters published in G.Q magazine (circulation 873,000), George (circulation 550,000), The Economist (circulation worldwide), Vanity Fair and The Dallas Morning News. The Sunday edition of The Dallas Morning News reaches 760,000 people. If you don't have someone writing letters to the editor where you are, get something going, and that includes you women, too, who are generally far too quiet.

The American public is finally emerging from a decades-long, propaganda-fueled rage to punish, into a time where reason and enlightenment might once again prevail. You can and you should be part of the process and you can do so by writing letters to the editor.