Prison Letters Project Responds to Incarcerated People
A new initiative seeks to amplify the voices of incarcerated individuals by ensuring every letter from a person in prison is answered and, with permission, shared publicly.
The Prison Letters Project was started by Lecturer in Law Emily Bazelon ’00, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, and brings together the Law and Racial Justice Center at Yale Law School and Freedom Reads, a project hosted by the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.
The inspiration for the project came from a letter Yutico Briley sent Bazelon in 2019 when he was in prison in Louisiana, serving a 60-year sentence for armed robbery. Briley wrote of his claims for innocence. Bazelon wrote for The New York Times Magazine in July 2021 about his successful fight for exoneration, with her sister Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, representing him.
Bazelon knew that after the Briley story ran, she would receive more letters describing excessive sentences, claims of innocence, or other legal problems. She said that journalists who write about criminal justice often receive letters from incarcerated people.
“I get a lot of mail from people in prison,” Bazelon wrote in her original story. “It’s impossible for me to read all of them, and though I don’t feel good about it, many go unanswered.”
The Prison Letters Project seeks to answer those letters and also spotlight the voices of the writers. With the permission and participation of the writers, portions of the letters from prisoners and their advocates are logged into a database and can be read online. Freedom Reads, which works to bring libraries into prisons across the country, hosts the database. Dwayne Betts ’16 is the founder of the organization.
“When we started the Prison Letters Project, Dwayne and I talked about how we hoped that if readers hear what we hear, when we get these letters, it will help to bring more resources to incarcerated people, whether that's in the form of journalism, or legal representation, or volunteering to be a pen pal,” Bazelon said. “I've been struck too by how the communication between the people who write to us and the law students who answer is itself a benefit, in terms of learning and respect.”
Three current Law School students — Partha Sharma ’23, Natalie Smith ’23, and Johnathan Terry ’23 — have worked with Bazelon to log the letters and launch the project. Joel Sati ’22 also worked on the project last year.
“As students, we’re in a unique position to be able to help respond to the many letters and requests for help sent to professors and advocates at schools like ours,” Terry said. “It’s rewarding to be able to leverage that position to help people whose stories might otherwise go unheard, and to lend some humanity to people who too often are denied it.”
The New York Times Magazine announced the Prison Letters Project in a Sept. 2 newsletter by prison journalist John J. Lennon, who is incarcerated in upstate New York and has been published in The New York Times, Esquire, and elsewhere. He will take the lead in writing future newsletters.
“As a journalist, especially one in prison, I'm always writing for some issue that speaks to the collective, which is important,” Lennon said. “But it feels terrible sometimes to have this voice and be unable to write about an individual's apparent injustice. Now, with the Prison Letters Project, we do have the resources and we can highlight some of these injustices.”
Kayla Vinson, Executive Director for the Law and Racial Justice Center at Yale Law School, said that there is value in replying to each letter received.
“The social isolation of prison can be devastating,” Vinson said. “By replying to the letters, this project extends a connection to the outside world to the writers.”
The project intends to create a way for advocates of all kinds to learn about the letter writers’ experiences and offer help and resources.
“Prisons severely limit the exchange of communication between those inside and outside their walls,” Smith said. “I see this project as a way of bridging that barrier. Building a platform to facilitate connections between those inside and those who might support them on the outside has been the most meaningful part of this project to me.”
For the Law School students involved, the project has become a meaningful part of their legal education in a short time.
“It’s been rewarding to contribute to a project to spread claims of wrongful conviction and excessive sentencing by those incarcerated,” Shama said. “We’re very aware of how important the chance to spread their stories is to those who are in prison and seeking to share their claims with potential advocates.”
The Prison Letters website is a project of the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School. Visit the Prison Letters Project database for more information and to read excerpts from the letters received. Journalists, lawyers, or anyone interested in advocating for the individuals can send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org.