Activist Notes: Solidarity Valentine Cards to Prisoners
On February 13th, the Feminist Justice League (formerly the Twin Ports Women’s Rights Coalition), collaborated with Letters to Prisoners and Superior Save the Kids to do a solidarity Valentine card event. The event was attended by about nine individuals, who met at the Superior Public Library for an hour and a half as they wrote letters and sent cards to various incarcerated individuals. The event was a great way to celebrate Valentine’s Day and produced a large pile of letters. As I report back on this event, I wanted to share a little history and why this is a feminist issue.
Now, when I pitched the idea to Meghan, the organizer for Letters to Prisoners, she was a little worried that the idea of women sending Valentine cards to prisoners was a little….iffy. Not that there is anything wrong with women forming relationships with men who are in prison, but this sort of letter writing doesn’t seem like a particularly feministy activity. In a way, this represents how it is almost impossible to think about Valentine’s Day in a non-romantic way! Valentine Cards are almost always about romantic love. (Though in my own card shopping this year, I was surprised to find that there are a fair amount of Valentine Cards sold on behalf of cats and dogs…) In any event, it was very important to make clear that this event was not about romance. It was about sending cards that express love for freedom, social justice, humanity, and a better world. Hence, these were solidarity Valentine cards.
Sending cards to prisoners on Valentine’s Day makes a lot of sense to me. Now, eons ago, I used to be a Lutheran. Lutherans aren’t known for their support of Saints (hence, the whole protestant reformation). However, I remember in confirmation class I learned about Saint Valentine, probably around Valentine’s Day. I learned that he was imprisoned for performing Christian weddings in the pagan Roman Empire and sent a letter to his followers before his execution. Even Catholics don’t know if St. Valentine actually existed as a historical individual. According to the Catholic Education Resource Center, the first person named St. Valentine was beheaded on Feb 14th 270 AD for comforting Christian martyrs. There are two other saints named Valentine, one who was killed in Africa and another who was a Bishop in Terni (north of Rome). It is the Bishop from Terni who may be the Valentine most associated with the holiday, as he allegedly married couples and thusly became the patron saint of young people, marriage, and love. He is also the saint of bee keeping, epilepsy, and plagues, though these don’t sound quite as romantic. Like the original Valentine, his feast day was February 14th. In some stories, he either befriended or was romantically involved with the daughter of his jailer/judge, but this may have been a later addition to his story. Over time, the story and feast day became more closely associated with romance rather than Christian martyrdom. The romantic associations with the holiday may have come from other holidays, such as the Roman holiday of Lupercalia (which involved match making) between Feb 13-15 and Galatin’s Day (lover of women day).
Like Halloween, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, modern Valentine’s Day took off in the United States mid to late 1800s. This was bolstered by the industrial revolution, which allowed for the mass production of media, gift items, and cards (a boon for popularizing holidays). Like the other holidays, the modern celebrations was also buoyed by increased space for secularism in society. It would be interesting to write a history of Valentine’s Day, but for lack of space and time, suffice to say the holiday has had some romantic connotations since the beginning, but if the story is boiled down to its most basic elements it is a story of a man who is imprisoned and executed by a powerful empire on the basis of religious belief. It is a story about capital punishment and religious intolerance. Christianity may be the dominant religion in this country today, but religious persecution certainly continues through the violence, incarceration, and surveillance of Muslims in our country as well as recent attempts to ban Muslims from entering the country. In terms of capital punishment, the United States is the only country in the Americas that executed prisoners in 2015. Most industrialized countries have abolished the death penalty, so although we are among the 54 countries that practice capital punishment- most of the other countries are our so-called enemies…you know, the poor countries that we want to bring democracy to in the Middle East and Africa. Because of the actual history of St. Valentine, I think that the holiday provides a great opportunity to put a spotlight on our criminal justice system.
I have only gone to a few Letters to Prisoners events, but a person can learn a lot about our criminal justice system by simply sending a letter or card. For instance, although the event was pitched as a Valentine card making event, prisoners are not allowed to receive glittery, pretty, colorful handmade cards. The cards must be done in black and white ink. Likewise, the prisoners can not receive letters with colorful birds or flowers. The stamps must be Forever FLAG stamps. Officially, this is to control what kinds of stamps are sent to prevent drugs from being sent in the guise of stamps. But really? Really? Forever FLAG stamps. I think this sends a powerful message that they are owned and controlled by the United States. The letters are stamped with mandatory patriotism. I also observed that most of the prisons are in the south of the United States. For instance, I sent cards to four political prisoners with birthdays in February. Three of the four were in prisons in the southern U.S. The south has the largest prison population. There are 867,000 prisoners in Louisiana, Alabama has 677,000 prisoners, and Mississippi has 740,000 prisoners. Georgia has over 550,000 prisoners and Texas 669,000. Minnesota has 194,00 and California 365,000. The states with the highest prison populations have the poorest populations and a history of slavery. While the bulk of the U.S. prison population lives in the south, as a whole, the United States has 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. We have more prisons than colleges. Finally, many of the political prisoners that I have written to have been imprisoned for decades. Many, like Leonard Peltier, will likely die in prison. If we look to our neighbors in the Americas, many countries limit life sentences. In Brazil, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Uruguay the maximum prison sentence is 30 years. It is 25 years in Paraguay and 35 years in Ecuador. I find it ironic that many of the countries that the United States has tried to bring democracy to through supported coups and military training are actually more democratic and humane that our own country.
To connect the issue more closely to feminism specifically, I had my friend Lucas construct a list of female prisoners for participants to write to. Participants in the letter writing event chose from this list or sought other lists from online. While the United States hosts 25% of the world’s prison population, if we looked at the world’s female prison population, we detain 33% of the world’s female prisoners. It is astonishing to think that 1/3 of all of the women in prison, in the entire world, are held in the United States. While we did not discuss female specific issues related to prisoners at the event, there are some unique challenges that female prisoners face. For one, while prisoners should legally have the right, this has been denied to women. States such as Georgia, Wisconsin, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Missouri have no policy regarding pregnancy, which leaves the decision in the hands of correctional facilities. In the past, correctional facilities in Arizona and Missouri have refused to transport female prisoners for abortion procedures. Of course, barriers that all women face in obtaining abortion pertain to imprisoned women as well, including waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, limited access in some parts of the country, parental consent, etc. Female inmates with children must navigate custody issues and expensive phone calls if they want to remain in touch with their children. A collect phone call from a prison in Minnesota costs about 75 cents a minute, but in Kentucky, the cost is $5.70 a minute! In North Dakota, the cost is over $6.00 a minute! These costs are expensive because prisons have contracts with phone companies, which offer kickbacks to the agency that contracted with them. From my own experience working in a domestic violence shelter, many of the women who come to shelter have criminal histories. However, some of this includes arrests for assaults that were really actions taken for self-defense. These criminal backgrounds make it harder to obtain housing, as it may disqualify them from some programs or make landlords less willing to rent to them. It also makes employment more difficult, as only the lowest paid sectors of the service industry will hire them. This creates barriers for escaping domestic violence and building a life outside of crime and poverty for their family. But, gender aside, as human beings, we are all diminished by a racist, ableist, and classist criminal justice system which divides us, removes sectors of the population away from their families and communities, and steals the lives of fellow humans at a profit to corporations!