Q&A: Jonathan Woodroof, Lead Organizer of Prison Letters

Jonathan Woodroof is lead organizer of Prison Letters, a group that meets at The Birdhouse (800 N. Fourth Ave.) at 6 p.m. Wednesdays to write letters to prisoners and try to establish pen pal arrangements.

How'd this idea come up?

I am a part of a group of people who are trying to form a Catholic Worker house in Knoxville. One of the aims for that is to try to alleviate the trauma that is inflicted through the prison complex and support the prisoner in any way we can. The specific Prison Letters idea came from a group in Pittsburgh called Write On!—we thought this would be a great project in Knoxville.

Does any of this have to do with your personal background?

I have many friends who are serving or have served prison and jail sentences. Because of that, and learning about our justice system, I and others like me want to love those whom society has deemed unworthy. We want to break down the walls that are set up to divide us, and learn that together we can fight oppression and stand against injustice. I believe that the system we have in place is a machine to make money through racial biases. More than 2 million people are incarcerated in this country and many millions more are currently under some kind of legal control. This is justice with a price tag.

Isn't the idea of a pen pal a little old-fashioned?

People in jail do not have access to computers; in fact most people in jail do not have access to letters! Those in Blount county jail, for example, can only receive post cards—talk about privacy! Those who can receive letters must do it the old-fashioned way.

Who would you most like to have join your group of letter writers?

We want as many people as we can get. The reasons to do it are numerous: If you want to love those who are being punished; communicate to the excommunicated; or bring about the downfall of the prison corporations, then this is a project for you. Those who have experience in prison and want to share with those who are recently incarcerated would be a tremendous asset.

Where are the prisoners?

Those we have been writing to are political prisoners in America, those on death row, and also those in the vicinity of Tennessee.

Does the justice system have rules about who can write, or write back?

Those who have control can decide whether letters get delivered or not. Other than that anyone is "free" to write when they can.

Have prisoners responded?

Since our program has only been going about a month, we have not had much of a response yet.

How would you define short- and long-term success?

Every week is a success whether it's five people writing or 25. Doing what you think is the right thing to do cannot be defined in any other terms.

Is there a danger of letter-writers getting too involved with prisoners?

There are those that say do not put your real name when writing to prisoners. Not to keep you safe from the prisoners, rather from the authorities themselves.

Would a religious or evangelical letter be encouraged or discouraged?

This is an autonomous project, meaning anyone can write what they want.

Who pays the postage?

We are in need of donations! Postage stamps cost a lot and we can't seem to have enough week to week. If you'd like to donate you can contact me through my e-mail at Junte101@gmail.com

Did the popularity of Orange Is the New Black influence you?'

That show has no reflection on reality at all. If it did, I'm sure it wouldn't be as popular as it is today.