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Thursday, March 16 • 1:00pm - 1:45pm
Prison Letters Project

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Join us for a conversation first with Emily Bazelon and John J. Lennon and then more from those at Yale running the Prison Letter Project

The Prison Letters Project was started by Lecturer in Law Emily Bazelon ’00, a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine, and brings together the Law and Racial Justice Center at Yale Law School and Freedom Reads, a project hosted by the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School.
The inspiration for the project came from a letter Yutico Briley sent Bazelon in 2019 when he was in prison in Louisiana, serving a 60-year sentence for armed robbery. Briley wrote of his claims for innocence. Bazelon wrote for The New York Times Magazine in July 2021 about his successful fight for exoneration, with her sister Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, representing him.
Bazelon knew that after the Briley story ran, she would receive more letters describing excessive sentences, claims of innocence, or other legal problems. She said that journalists who write about criminal justice often receive letters from incarcerated people.
“I get a lot of mail from people in prison,” Bazelon wrote in her original story. “It’s impossible for me to read all of them, and though I don’t feel good about it, many go unanswered.”
The Prison Letters Project seeks to answer those letters and also spotlight the voices of the writers. With the permission and participation of the writers, portions of the letters from prisoners and their advocates are logged into a database and can be read online. Freedom Reads, which works to bring libraries into prisons across the country, hosts the database. Dwayne Betts ’16 is the founder of the organization.
“When we started the Prison Letters Project, Dwayne and I talked about how we hoped that if readers hear what we hear, when we get these letters, it will help to bring more resources to incarcerated people, whether that's in the form of journalism, or legal representation, or volunteering to be a pen pal,” Bazelon said. “I've been struck too by how the communication between the people who write to us and the law students who answer is itself a benefit, in terms of learning and respect.”
Three current Law School students — Partha Sharma ’23, Natalie Smith ’23, and Johnathan Terry ’23 — have worked with Bazelon to log the letters and launch the project. Joel Sati ’22 also worked on the project last year.
“As students, we’re in a unique position to be able to help respond to the many letters and requests for help sent to professors and advocates at schools like ours,” Terry said. “It’s rewarding to be able to leverage that position to help people whose stories might otherwise go unheard, and to lend some humanity to people who too often are denied it.”
The New York Times Magazine announced the Prison Letters Project in a Sept. 2 newsletter by prison journalist John J. Lennon, who is incarcerated in upstate New York and has been published in The New York Times, Esquire, and elsewhere. He will take the lead in writing future newsletters.
“As a journalist, especially one in prison, I'm always writing for some issue that speaks to the collective, which is important,” Lennon said. “But it feels terrible sometimes to have this voice and be unable to write about an individual's apparent injustice. Now, with the Prison Letters Project, we do have the resources and we can highlight some of these injustices.”
Kayla Vinson, Executive Director for the Law and Racial Justice Center at Yale Law School, said that there is value in replying to each letter received.
“The social isolation of prison can be devastating,” Vinson said. “By replying to the letters, this project extends a connection to the outside world to the writers.”
The project intends to create a way for advocates of all kinds to learn about the letter writers’ experiences and offer help and resources.
“Prisons severely limit the exchange of communication between those inside and outside their walls,” Smith said. “I see this project as a way of bridging that barrier. Building a platform to facilitate connections between those inside and those who might support them on the outside has been the most meaningful part of this project to me.”
For the Law School students involved, the project has become a meaningful part of their legal education in a short time.
“It’s been rewarding to contribute to a project to spread claims of wrongful conviction and excessive sentencing by those incarcerated,” Shama said. “We’re very aware of how important the chance to spread their stories is to those who are in prison and seeking to share their claims with potential advocates.”
The Prison Letters website is a project of the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Fund at Yale Law School. Visit the Prison Letters Project database for more information and to read excerpts from the letters received. Journalists, lawyers, or anyone interested in advocating for the individuals can send a note to prisonlettersproject@yale.edu.

avatar for John J Lennon

John J Lennon

John J. Lennon currently serving a 28-years-to-life sentence at Sullivan Correctional Facility for murder, drug sales and gun possession.He is a contributing editor at Esquire and a contributing writer at the Marshall Project. His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazin... Read More →

Ava Navarro Fakhrabadi

Ava Navarro Fakhrabadi is a 2L at Yale Law School. She graduated from UCLA in 2019 with a B.A. in Political Science. Before law school, she worked as a paralegal at the Legal Aid Society of San Diego assisting clients facing eviction. In law school, Ava has focused on supporting... Read More →

Natalie Smith

Natalie Smith is a 3L at Yale Law School, with a research background in the sociology of mass incarceration. After graduating from Harvard College in 2015 with a joint-degree BA in Sociology and Visual Arts, Natalie worked as a project manager for Professor Bruce Western’s studies... Read More →

Johnathan Terry

Johnathan Terry is a 3L at Yale Law School interested in impact litigation and domestic policy. Prior to starting law school, Johnathan worked on criminal legal policy at the Manhattan DA’s Office and at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. As a part of his policy work at the Manhattan... Read More →
avatar for Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon

Senior Research Scholar in Law, and Truman Capote Fellow, Staff Writer, Yale Law School, New York Times Magazine
Emily Bazelon is a Lecturer in Law, Senior Research Scholar in Law, and Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is also a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and author of two national bestsellers, Charged: The Movement to Transform American Prosecution and End Mass Incarceration and Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy. She co-hosts... Read More →
avatar for Kayla Vinson

Kayla Vinson

Executive Director, Law and Racial Justice Center; Associate Research Scholar in Law; and Lecturer in Law, Yale Law School
Kayla Vinson is the inaugural Executive Director of the Law and Racial Justice Center, and she co-teaches the Access to Law School courses. Kayla’s work investigates how the afterlife of chattel slavery mediates life, opportunity, development, and underdevelopment in the United... Read More →

Thursday March 16, 2023 1:00pm - 1:45pm EDT
Room A