Graham Sherrill likes to play the bass guitar. It’s one of the pleasures he has inside the Airway Heights Corrections Center, where he receives email and corresponds with this writer. He got started playing with a faith-based 12-step program called Celebrate Recovery.
One of the volunteers asked how long he’d been playing — he’d just picked up the guitar two months prior.
“[A]nd he was blown away. as to how quick I learned and things. thinking I was at least playing for about seven years as to how I was doing,” Sherrill wrote. He has a tablet device that he uses to compose messages that he can send through a service called JPay. Despite the fact that it’s an email, every message must be sent with a “stamp” that either sender can purchase.
That’s one of the ways that incarcerated people in Washington state communicate with the outside world. Everything comes with a cost. But for the people inside and those who engage with them — be they family, friends, or random journalists — it can be a price worth paying.
Sherrill connected with his various pen pals through an organization called Abolition Apostles, a project started by pastors David Brazil and Sarah Pritchard after they relocated from the Bay Area, in California, to Louisiana, the state with one of the highest number of incarcerated people in a country that imprisons more people than any other.
“We were called to do it by God,” Brazil said.
The couple had gone on what Brazil describes as a pilgrimage to visit an incarcerated person that Pritchard had been in contact with in southern California. The person that they visited had been incarcerated for decades for nonviolent crimes and had organized a hunger strike against solitary confinement from the inside.
The experience was transformative.
“We realized that we were people who were committed in the long term to anti-capitalism and fighting white supremacy, but we realized that focusing on incarcerated people was both theologically and politically crucial to us,” Brazil said.
Prison, Brazil said, is a mechanism for social isolation. Having a pen pal is one way to break that down, especially if people don’t have strong ties on the outside. The demand is such that Brazil and Pritchard have to continuously recruit new pen pals, lest incarcerated people have to wait to get paired up.
At one point in 2021, there were between 600 and 800 people on the Abolition Apostles waiting list.
“It just got so enormous… we just needed a lot of help,” Brazil said. The waiting list was down to fewer than 100 people as of the end of 2021.
Incarcerated people find out about Abolition Apostles through social media, podcasts and news stories, he said. Sherrill signed up through A.B.O. Comix, a comic shop that publishes and sells artwork created by incarcerated people with the intention of benefitting specifically LGBTQ+ inmates. He has submitted a number of different drawings to A.B.O. Comix, and he saw a link at the top of their web page that read simply “Pen Pals.”
That was how he eventually met Robert Campbell, a pen pal who got involved through Abolition Apostles. He described the act of writing as where his faith intersects with his politics. Campbell has a few pen pals in different states including Texas and Washington. The experience of interacting with them is markedly different, Campbell said.
In Washington, communication can be nearly instantaneous. Sherrill is a prolific writer, sending multiple emails in a day, on occasion, and physical mail often with drawings or cards attached with some regularity. In other places, it can take as long as two weeks to get a message back and forth.
“It was eye opening,” Campbell said. “There’s no connection to anybody in the prison system.”
Studies show that the simple act of human connection can reduce recidivism among incarcerated people, particularly with family. Leah Wang, a researcher with the Prison Policy Project, did a deep dive into literature going back more than 50 years.
While mail has been around longer than some other methods of communication and can be cheaper than phone calls — just a handful of companies provide phone service in prisons and can charge 21 cents per minute for interstate calls, by law — it hasn’t received the same level of academic inquiry as other, more difficult forms of communication such as visitation, Wang said.
“Mail has limitations on what folks can study,” she said.
A couple of studies that she included in her research roundup looked at the impact of mail on recidivism, specifically whether or not people who reported receiving mail, phone calls or in-person visitations ended up going back to prison within a few years. The evidence, while not conclusive, suggested that connection with family was more of an indicator that a person wouldn’t recidivate or wouldn’t within the study period compared with than friends or strangers, such as through pen pal services.
Of course, not all prisons make it easy to forge and maintain these relationships. JPay charges for “stamps” to send email — $2 will get you six stamps for a person incarcerated in Washington, and you have the ability to attach a stamp for the incarcerated person, something Campbell suggested as a best practice. Other prisons use digitization services so that mail can be monitored, depriving people of the ability to hold physical letters.
One study showed that loved ones self-censor when they communicate with people who are incarcerated, sometimes out of fear that their conversation will be monitored and negatively impact someone’s case — many people imprisoned in jails haven’t actually been convicted of a crime, but either didn’t receive the option of bail or couldn’t afford it.
Still, the act of writing can have a positive impact, at least anecdotally.
For Sherrill, hearing from others and meeting new people through the pen pal service has been a source of encouragement. He described himself as standoffish and untrusting when he first went to prison in 2004 — he’d been burned by people he considered friends and loved ones before.
“[M]ore so writing [is an] inspiration and encouragement showing understanding and care,” Sherrill wrote. “That others can relate to things and is some who get and know how things are and can be. And having empathy and sympathy.”
When Campbell and Sherrill first started corresponding, they connected over music. Sherrill can list off a dozen bands that he enjoys, including a lot of electronic music, although the band Korn is the one that inspired him to pick up the bass guitar. Initially, the letters were “almost like dating,” Campbell said.
“We were getting to know one another,” he said.
Campbell doesn’t ask his pen pals about their criminal history, and Brazil acknowledges that some people who use his pen pal service have done true harm.
“We say in our Sunday orientations that we need to be clear that people we’re corresponding with have, in many cases, been convicted of very serious crimes,” Brazil said. “Not everybody who is incarcerated is in prison for selling marijuana or something. People are in prison for murder, for rape, for molesting children, for really, really bad stuff.”
However, Brazil and Pritchard, as Christian pastors, also believe that nothing that people do can cut them off from the love of God. The experience of navigating complicated questions of harm and accountability is part of believing in prison abolition.
“In a world that we live in right now, where those kinds of changes haven’t taken place, how do we take care of people who are in extreme situation, who are incarcerated, who in many cases are brutally incarcerated in solitary confinement and bad conditions, regardless of what they’ve done,” Brazil said.
“When I know that I am a sinner, and I am not in a place to be judging other people’s sinfulness,” he said. “What I am in a place to do is be looking to love my neighbor as myself.”
Read more of the Apr. 27-May 3, 2022 issue.