The Prison Letters Project

Desperate pleas for help are answered and amplified
Yutico Briley was exonerated after corresponding with Emily Bazelon, a staff writer for the magazine.Ruddy Roye for The New York Times

Last July, The New York Times Magazine published a cover story by Emily Bazelon about the exoneration of a prisoner named Yutico Briley. He was serving a 60-year sentence in Louisiana for an armed robbery he did not commit. The article started with a letter that Yutico sent to Bazelon from prison. As she explained in her story: "Like many journalists who write about criminal justice, I get a lot of mail from people in prison. The letters usually go on for pages, carefully handwritten on lined note paper, sometimes with sentences in smaller print crawling up the margins. The pages are dense with facts, about a conviction or an appeal. They often brim with desperation. It's impossible for me to read all of them, and though I don't feel good about it, many go unanswered."

Bazelon connected Briley with her sister, Lara Bazelon, a law professor at the University of San Francisco, who fought for his exoneration. Bazelon knew she would receive even more letters from people in prison when the article ran. And she did. Letters written by prisoners to journalists are often an act of last resort. Their cases have wound their way through the justice system or hit procedural walls. And after the powerful demonstration that Briley's story provided of the prevalence of innocence claims, Bazelon decided to help create a system to ensure that every letter she received was read. So she started a project to answer them, and to amplify the voices of the writers, with the help of a group of students at Yale Law School (where she is a lecturer). The students log portions of the letters that Bazelon receives from prisoners (as well as their advocates) into a public database with the permission and participation of the people who wrote them. The database is hosted by Freedom Reads, an organization that takes libraries and literary programs to prisons, and the Law and Racial Justice Center at Yale.

To give you a sense of the kinds of stories the letters contain, we have highlighted a sampling from a few. M.D. in Pennsylvania wrote: "I've been unjustly incarcerated for almost half a century. According to the Commonwealth's Prosecutor, I should have served a sentence for Voluntary Manslaughter (5-10 years in PA in 1976). There must be some legal venue available to me for correction of the admitted injustice." J.S. from Ohio wrote of his case, "The video camera evidence and knife in the photograph evidence all disappeared and/or purposely not collected." L.F. from New York said, "I sincerely hope you will help me dismantle the rubberstamping of these convictions by reminding the courts what the standards of beyond a reasonable doubt is." D.M. in Texas wrote, "Since my trial I've discovered a report generated by police acknowledging mistakes made surrounding the testing of ballistics evidence." R.G. wrote from Texas, "Since I was discharged in 2008, I have been back to prison 3 times for not registering" as a sex offender. "The answer I gave them was I will not register to something I am not." And M.R. said, "I'm an innocent man."

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Tim Young, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death in California, sent a poem about living in what felt like "a dungeon/Among condemned men." Bazelon also received a letter about Young's case from Golnoush Pak, a recent graduate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, who got to know Young through a class and believes that he has been wrongly incarcerated. As Pak wrote, "Tim's wrongful conviction is deeply intertwined with the topics you covered in Yutico Briley's case including failures in the investigation, racial profiling, along with police misconduct and uncredible witness." In the 2022 spring semester of a popular class at Georgetown University and a related class at UC Santa Cruz, Making an Exoneree, Young's case was one of five selected to be reinvestigated by undergraduate students. They conducted interviews in California and made a short documentary, "I Am More." The students managed to get the now-retired trial judge, Ron Couillard, to admit that the evidence room in this case "was just a nightmare." What was also troubling about this case was that Young has been in prison for 23 years, based largely on the word of a jailhouse informant.

Young, who has maintained his innocence, was appointed an appellate attorney in 2010. After asking 59 times to extend the filing deadlines, the lawyer finally submitted the appeal last March. The claims, drawn from only the trial record, included nothing about the evidence logs or Couillard's remarks to the Georgetown students. Young, who can't afford a private attorney, hopes a law firm will agree to take his case pro bono to add this key information to his appeal.

You can learn more about Young's case and others here, at the landing page for the database. If you're a lawyer or a journalist who is interested in investigating one of them, or if you're a prospective pen pal or are just curious, please send a note to prisonlettersproject@yale.edu.

The letters may occasionally inspire future newsletters about a case that speaks to some form of injustice, whether a claim of innocence, excessive punishment, prosecutorial misconduct or other systemic problems. John J. Lennon, a prison journalist in New York who is a contributing editor at Esquire Magazine, will take the lead in writing those.

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