Here in prison, amid condemned men, the weather of life is often inclement. The winds of misery blow relentlessly. For me, one of the only things that I have to look forward to throughout the week is the announcement of “mail call!”
The anticipation is real. From Monday through Friday, I wait for the 2 p.m. shift change. That is when the second watch officers go home and the third watch begins their eight-hour shift at the front desk, where the mail for each tier has been sorted and placed in individual United States Postal Service (USPS) carrying containers. The officers pick up the mail for their assigned tier and then report for duty.
On a good day, the officer will have the mail passed out by 4 p.m., before the prison’s institutional count time. If not, the mail likely won’t get passed out until after chow time. The agony of waiting for the officer to walk down the tier with the mail cart is tortuous. I wait with bated breath.
Why does mail matter so much to me? My name is Timothy James Young. I am an innocent man on death row at California’s San Quentin State Prison, convicted of a crime I did not commit. If Black lives are to matter, if abolition is to matter, if my life is to matter, then mail must matter. Support must matter.
Every time I get a letter, I can sometimes forget that I spend the bulk of my existence—sometimes 24 hours a day—alone in a cell so small I cannot outstretch my arms. It’s not just that a letter breaks up the monotony of my days spent surrounded by concrete and bars. It’s not just that I know that someone sees me as more than the identification number given to me by the state. When I get a letter, I win a small triumph against systems that have tried to make me—and nearly 2 million other incarcerated people—invisible.
When it comes to politics and policing, I often talk about the “carceral continuum,” a term first coined by Michel Foucault to describe prison as the core of a disciplinary network that extends into many other social areas and institutions. If you can recall the more than nine minutes of horror that Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin subjected George Floyd to before his death, you can probably imagine some of the horrors that take place in prison and institutions like prison. I won’t paint any pictures here; I’ll just say that prisons are designed to dehumanize people and tear down all lines of communication, care, and support. So when I get a letter, it makes a difference in my life and it makes my day so much better. With every letter, I am also made proud that others continue to join me in the fight against the racist and oppressive structures that want to vanish me.
I am a freedom fighter–I fight for freedom, justice, and equality. I fight on behalf of all. I fight for those who won’t even fight at all. I do all of this from behind the walls of mass incarceration, racism, and oppression. Yes, I am trapped inside the belly of the beast. But, do not let the media, the prison-industrial complex, or the powers that be deter you from reaching out, having an impact, and making a difference in my life. With your support, I am able to affect change from the inside out. With your emotional, personal, monetary, or legal support,I am able to spread my tattered wings and reach new heights.
The way I see it, letters lead to friendships. Friendships lead to solidarity. And solidarity leads to support. It may not always happen in that exact order, but the theory that I have developed is that friendship is the pathway to freedom.
This year, one of my supporters sent me a drawing of a rose for my birthday. Scrolled across the rose was the word “solidarity.” I used to liken myself to a “rose that grew from concrete,” a phrase made popular by musical artist and poet Tupac Shakur. After more than 20 years of incarceration—and after receiving that rose—I now consider myself a “rose that grew from solidarity.” Solidarity not only strengthens me and allows me to grow, but it also places me snuggly inside of a community that cares. A community that believes that a better world is possible.
I consider myself a student of life, and every person that I am able to correspond with and build a connection to is simply another opportunity for me to learn and grow. So I ask that you get off the sidelines of apathy and indifference, that you pick up some paper and a pen. I ask that you join my fight for freedom and abolition and that you allow your light to become a beacon of hope.
Make no mistake: Your time, talent, and resources have the ability to move mountains. When it comes to extracting a wrongfully convicted prisoner from the talons of the criminal justice system, sometimes it starts with just a simple letter—a letter of solidarity.
Consider this an SOS, a last request, a Hail Mary of sorts. I ask that you not only find me worthy of letters and kind acts of humanity but that you’ll also consider becoming an active member of the “Free Tim Young” campaign. We are a budding movement, and our mission is aligned with freedom, abolition, and eradicating the roots of systemic racism. Who’s in? Who will help bring my nightmare to an end?
I await your letter at the next mail call.
The Right to Write (R2W) project is an editorial initiative where Prism works with incarcerated writers to share their reporting and perspectives across our verticals and coverage areas. Learn more about R2W and how to pitch here.