“Your mail is a steady flow in the beginning, but anything after 2 years and those letters start to dwindle,” says Evelyn LaChapelle, a former prisoner and now organizer for the Last Prioner Project.
“Every time the mail is slid under your door or left on your bed or called at mail call, there is a piece of excitement that comes with that.” LaChapelle says correspondence with the outside world was a lifeline during her sentence — so much so she’s kept all the letters. “It shows you the magnitude, how important these letters become, how important that communication to the outside world becomes. Even if you don’t know that person or you assume that this is just frivolous, on the inside we are drawn to that. There is no frivolous mail.”
LaChapelle was fortunate enough to have secured her release as a constituent of LPP and now works for them as a re-entry coordinator. In 2009 she was arrested for depositing profits of cannabis sales into her bank account, and in 2013 she was sentenced by the federal courts to 87 months despite marijuana already starting to make its legal pathway in her home state of California. As she told her story, she passionately explained why she stands so strongly behind this letter-writing program. “This will be a way for inmates to know that America, that there are people outside who are paying attention, who are concerned, and who are dedicated to see their release, and that’s what this is about,” said LaChapelle. “This is bringing a little heart to that mission.”
Craig Cesal was recently released to home arrest thanks to the First Up Act of 2018 and the CARES Act of 2020. Before prison, he was in the business of servicing work trucks. Some of these trucks ended up being used to transport marijuana. One of the drivers was arrested, and Cesal was charged with conspiracy to distribute. Despite having no criminal record, he was sentenced to life without parole. When COVID is no longer a concern, the reality is that he could get called back to complete his sentence. As Cesal says, “What we always hear is that marijuana crimes are victimless crimes. But the truth is the victims are the people that are in prison.”
Cesal, now a vocal public advocate for the Last Prisoner Project says inmates enjoy receiving letters where people simply talk about their life like they would to a friend. Cesal recalls fondly, “I can remember one of my favourite letters from about 2 years ago was from a man who worked in a cannabis business in Colorado and just said, ‘Hey, I found out you’re serving a life sentence for marijuana. Here’s what I am doing in the marijuana industry,’ and that was one of my favourite letters because here is a person on the outside and sharing his life with me, so there is nothing you can write wrong. Just share yourself and reach out. The prisoner can effectively live vicariously through what you are doing. It makes a big difference.”
Things such as sharing what music you are listening to that day or talking about your favourite books can bring true joy. Magazine subscriptions are also a hot commodity for reading and trading for other magazines, especially now with lockdowns being so intense. These subscriptions are another tangible thing that can be done and really mean a lot to the recipients.
LaChapelle encourages everyone interested in this program to not hold back, but also take some steps to make sure that your letters are received. “For your first letter use white paper, white envelope, black or blue ink, because every prison system has their own restrictions.” If you send a greeting card, the inmate may only receive a photocopy, but in your first letter you can ask what the mailing restrictions are in their system so that you know what will be accepted.
Currently in the United States, more than 40,000 people are incarcerated for crimes related to cannabis, with an estimated minimum of 2000 in Michigan alone despite cannabis being legal in Michigan for medical and recreational use since 2018.
What it all boils down to is that there are people in society actively working in and benefiting from the cannabis industry, while others sit in prison serving lengthy federal sentences for being tied to cannabis-related offences. They need to know that they are remembered and that they are not alone, especially during this holiday season.
You can access more information and get involved with the letter-writing campaign by visiting Last Prisoner Project.