Fall 2012 marked the fifth anniversary of SFPIRG’s social justice program, Letters for the Inside (LFTI). It has been seen as one of their most successful programs in recent years, but also one of their most controversial.
The program initially started by Megan Branson in 2004. After her brother — a Capilano student at the time — was incarcerated, she realized the discrepancy between the amount of information that she and her brother had access to in their respective settings. She started the program in hopes of bridging this gap. In 2007, Branson transferred to SFU and, with her, LFTI found a new niche at SFPIRG. The concept is simple: prisoners from across Canada — predominantly BC — write in with requests for information. Volunteers for LFTI respond by providing them with the requested information, be it straightforward statistics that we can easily Google, or job and school applications. It has been highly successful, with a total of 173 letters exchanged in 2012 alone. Many of the inmates involved in the program have written in over the years with positive feedback.
“You folks were a great help to me, especially with the dissertation,” wrote one inmate. “Now I want to do a Master’s of Divinity.” Another writer is involved in an inmate health peer education program, and had requested information on tuberculosis (TB) and MSRA infections. “We were able to use the information you sent on TB and MSRA right away. It was so easy to understand and to be teachable. We all thank you so much,” he wrote. “This information does save lives, and since they let inmates teach inmates on the dangers of STIs and other diseases, [the inmates] listen.”
The program has been controversial, because many have questioned whether all of the resources that are put in should be focused on prisoners. Some have argued that, as part of the consequences for their actions, these prisoners should not have access to all of the same means as the general population. Those involved with the program, however, are quick to point out that the program also caters to those who are in facilities awaiting trials. Furthermore, the focus is on a rehabilitative approach: these prisoners will eventually be let out and when they are they should be provided with the knowledge to reintegrate into the community.
“Most people would agree that inmates provided with services such as skill development opportunities, counselling, and information on how to reintegrate after their sentence are probably going to have more successful transitions back into society than those who do not receive any support,” says SFPIRG’s Laura Kadowki. “More importantly, the people who are incarcerated in prisons are still fellow human beings with intellectual needs and desires.”
Regardless of individual views on the criminal justice system, this program addresses the social and intellectual aspects of justice, and tries to provide the ever-growing and often faceless prison population with some of the same opportunities that we as students are lucky to have.
If you are interested in becoming an LFTI volunteer please email firstname.lastname@example.org or drop by the SFPIRG offices (TC326 in the Rotunda) Monday to Friday from 10:30–4:30 for more information.