When 10 activists from Austria’s Association Against Animal Factories (“Verein gegen Tierfabriken,” or VGT) were arrested in May 2008 and charged with “suspected forming of a criminal organization in connection with direct animal right actions,” activists around the world were quick to show their support. Animal Liberation Victoria even carried out an open rescue in solidarity with the prisoners, saving 13 hens from a battery-egg operation in June. All the attention shined a spotlight on the Austrian government, which released the activists in September. Clearly, in an age when the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act can become law with hardly an objection from lawmakers, anyone might find themselves behind bars for voicing an opinion not in step with the status quo.
“It’s important for us to be vocal and active about supporting people who have been incarcerated for defending animals ― or even just speaking out in their defense ― because it relays a clear message that the people abusing animals are the real criminals, not the people trying to protect them,” says Dallas Rising, president of Support Vegans in the Prison System (Support VIPS). “Supporting political prisoners of any kind makes a difference for the individual, but especially for animal rights activists. The average animal rights prisoner has very little in common with the general prison population, so having a connection to people who share a similar value system can be very important to people who are isolated, bored and frustrated by the lack of meaningful exchange in their environment.”
Peter Young, who served two years in federal prison for liberating animals from several fur farms in 1997, believes that supporting humans in prison sends a strong message to activists that there is a safety net for them if they are caught engaging in illegal actions on behalf of non-human animals. “This peace of mind makes the work of people fighting for animals under darkness much easier,” he says. “I have also found the stories of animal rights prisoners to be powerful outreach. These stories of people breaking the law to save animals raise the bar and bring those new to the issue a sense that if other people are willing to break the law to save animals, the least they can do is be vegan.”
There are many ways to help imprisoned activists, and providing a little support to someone facing years in jail can buoy that person’s morale and nurture solidarity in the movement. I am going to focus on five main methods: writing letters, sending books, visiting, helping vegan inmates get plant-based food and providing financial support (sending money, helping with legal expenses, etc.).
The first step is knowing where inmates are, and the easiest place to find addresses for animal activists serving time is the Internet:
- Bite Back magazine maintains a list of prisoners that the publisher updates weekly.
- The Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) site lists activists currently serving sentences for their actions against Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS).
- The Vegan Prisoners Support Group lists inmates in the UK (including SHAC).
- A SHAC7 support site in the US is also worth checking out.
Cards and letters are paramount to relieving an inmate’s feeling of isolation; however, all mail is opened and read by prison officials, so don’t write anything that may cause problems for the prisoner. “Depending on the prisoner, do not discuss the case or anything related to the case,” advises attorney Shannon Keith, who has represented a number of animal rights activists and campaigns, including SHAC and Sea Shepherd. “Do not discuss your feelings about whether the person is innocent or guilty.” She also says that most prisons do not accept anything other than letters and photos. “So, no stickers ― especially no animal rights stickers. No pictures depicting protests.”
Dallas cautions supporters not to take it personally if the inmate doesn’t respond. “It is not about you,” she says. “Don’t get upset if the person doesn’t write back to you, especially if they didn’t know you before going in. And even if they did know you, they may not have the mental or emotional energy to write back. Or they simply may not have the time.”
Unless you’re lucky enough to have unlimited time and resources, commit to writing just one or two inmates, and do it consistently.
Here are a few more letter-writing do’s and don’ts.
- Write on both sides of the paper.
- Write your address on the letter or card.
- Number the pages of your letter.
- Make sure the content of any photos you sent is appropriate; write the inmate’s name and prisoner ID number on the back of photos.
- Let imprisoned activists know about animal activism going on around the world.
- Send currency.
- Send stamps, envelopes, blank paper or blank note cards.
- Tape your envelope closed.
- Include paperclips, staples or other metal objects inside your letter.
- Send food or care packages.
- Send photographs larger than 4”x6”. No Polaroid photos.
- Write “legal mail” on the envelope or anything in your letter that implies you are an attorney.
“Letters to a prisoner can be like anchors or lifelines to the outside world,” says Andy Stepanian, who served two years and seven months in prison for “conspiracy to violate the Animal Enterprise Protection Act” as part of the SHAC campaign (he was released in December 2008). “Although my mail was vetted for content, I still received bundles of letters, and every time I did I felt like I could hold my head a little higher. The letters reminded me of where I came from and what I was fighting for.”
Most inmates appreciate receiving books, since reading is one way to pass the time behind bars. It’s a good idea to write to the prisoner first to confirm he or she can receive books; you can also ask what kinds of books they would like to read.
Books sent to most prisons must be new and with a soft cover (paperback); hardcover books will either be refused or prison officials will tear off the covers before passing the book on to the inmate. Unfortunately, many prisons will not permit you to mail a book to an inmate yourself; instead, books must be sent either directly from the publisher or through an online retailer such as Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Prisoners are often able to list books they would like to receive on Amazon’s Wish List section (just search the inmate’s name), or through a support group Web site.
Each US federal prison has set up certain days and times ― visiting hours — for family and friends to visit inmates. The inmate you plan to visit should tell you what the hours are for that prison. But you can’t simply show up and expect to see an inmate.
“Most prisons require that you be accepted and on an approved list first, so before you take your trip to the prison, call to make sure you do not have to be approved first,” says Shannon. “If so, mail the prisoner and ask them to fill out a form for your visit. You will receive an approval later, and then you can visit as you please during visiting hours. When visiting, know that you are being watched and possibly recorded. Avoid discussing legally sensitive subjects. Dress appropriately.”
In the UK, visiting a convicted prisoner requires you to first have a visiting order (a “VO”); these are generally issued to inmates once a month, and he or she will mail it to you. Depending on the prisoner, visits are one to two hours, and prisoners may be allowed between two and four visitors a month. For more information on Visiting inmates in the UK, click here.
If a city or county jail is denying a prisoner access to vegan meals, a few phone calls to the warden can help, says Dallas. “There’s not a lot people can do to help make sure a vegan is getting good food in a federal prison, but in a jail, phone calls matter a lot.”
Peter agrees. “Mob-action phone calls work,” he says. “You can’t overstate how concerned most jailers are with outside scrutiny. I have never had a problem with food that 100 phone calls in six hours did not fix. One jail was so concerned about the perceived threat of angry activists they sent a sheriff to the supermarket each morning, with a shopping list I wrote with my own hand.”
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals can help with prisons. PETA’s Bruce Friedrich says it is best if the judge orders the prison to provide vegan food before the convicted vegan heads to jail. “If your judge orders it, you’re set.” Failing that, family and friends on the outside can help by contacting PETA. “PETA is always ready to work to get vegan food for anyone who is having trouble,” says Bruce.
Although prisons may not be known for their vegan fare, some have surprisingly good plant-based food options, including lentil shepherd’s pie, vegan pizza, veggie burgers and mock meats. Here is PETA’s list of the top 10 veg-friendly US prisons.
Prisoners must pay for envelopes, postage stamps, phone cards and other necessities. They may even have to buy their own vegan food from the prison commissary. They probably also have legal fees. All these expenses can be offset with a fundraising effort managed by friends on the outside. Some organizations, like SHAC, set these up and allow people to donate online. Moreover, they raise funds through benefit concerts, film screenings and product sales.
“Fundraising for costly legal fees is always appreciated,” says Dallas. “As a bonus, you automatically have something to write about.”
You can also support inmates by sending money directly to their commissary account. The US Bureau of Prisons has a system to maintain an inmate’s monies while he or she is incarcerated. Family, friends or other sources may deposit funds into these accounts. For details on options for depositing funds into a prisoner’s account, click here.
You might also consider money-transfer services like JPay that allow you to get funds to a prisoner the next business day.
Prisoner Support Groups
SVIPS – United States
Founded by Dallas Rising, Peter Young and Aaron Zellhoefer, Support Vegans in the Prison System (SVIPS) assists prisoners needing vegan food, toiletries and general support.
VPSG – United Kingdom
Vegan Prisoners Support Group (VPSG) helps prisoners obtain vegan food, vegan toiletries and vegan footwear. British animal rights activist Jo-Ann Brown formed the group in 1994 to aid activist Keith Mann. Since then, VPSG’s work has grown, and it has been called upon to advise on disputes between prisoners and the prison service relating to vegan diets. Though based in the UK, VPSG supports prisoners in other countries. While incarcerated in Austria last August, for example, VGT activist Elmar Völkl wrote: “The Vegan Prisoner Support Group work must have been very good, because from the first day I got vegan food (on the first day I didn’t get anything), although I didn’t ever mention the word ‘vegan’ once!”
ALFSG – United Kingdom
The Animal Liberation Front Supporters Group (ALFSG) is a legal, above-ground organization that provides financial and practical support to those who find themselves in prison as part of the movement.
Advice from Prisoners of Conscience
Peter Young gave a talk on prisoner support at last year’s Let Live conference, and it’s definitely worth checking out.
SHAC activist Lauren Gazzola believes no form of support is better than activists staying active. Lauren, now serving a four-year, four-month sentence at a federal prison in Connecticut, told Abolitionist Online: “[T]o everyone who has written, sent books, donated, or done any other form of direct support, please know that the best form of support we can receive is vicarious ― please get out and fight for the animals. Step up your efforts, no matter where you currently stand in your activism ― take one step further, inspired by the SHAC7, and make our conviction a victory for the animals.”
“It’s easy to get lost in prison,” says Andy. “Lost in solitude, despair or other negative sentiments. Letters and outside support help pull you out of that space and strengthen you, make you whole.” Andy encourages people on the outside not to be deterred if they don’t know what to write about. “What many fail to understand is that the prisoner is just eager to make contact, to hear good news about movement victories or reconnect with an old friend. If you are a stranger, don’t feel discouraged. I can speak from firsthand experience that on some of my worst days while imprisoned, it was the words of a stranger that helped me trudge through another day. Something as simple as describing a beautiful day outside may mean the world to a prisoner at that moment when they open your envelope.”