We hope you are finding time to gather with friends and loved ones during these difficult days. We’re grateful to be a part of your community, and, as we did last year, we want to celebrate Hanukkah by introducing you to some of the writers, editors, and organizational staff who make Jewish Currents what it is. Each night, you’ll meet a different member of our team, who will reflect on work they found particularly meaningful from the last year.
The support of this staff is only made possible through the generosity of you, our readers. We don’t take advertisements or have an angel-investor, and we make all our work accessible to all. So it’s your engagement and support that makes the labor of our writers, editors, artists, and fact-checkers possible, and allows us to continue exploring the issues and questions most vital to you. We’re proud to shine a light on the people behind Jewish Currents, to share with you who and what you are supporting when you read, listen, donate, and subscribe to our magazine.
I’m Mari Cohen, associate editor at Jewish Currents. One of my favorite parts of my job is getting to work with incarcerated writers, who have published pieces in our pages on subjects ranging from the lack of access to news in prison to failed Covid-19 precautions to the experiences of State Raised prisoners. As a leftist magazine in a country plagued by mass incarceration, it’s a vital part of our work to allow our audience to hear directly from those living in the thousands of prisons that dot the American landscape.
A year ago, contributing writer Christopher Blackwell, the incarcerated journalist we’ve published most frequently, told me he had started a program to mentor other writers at the prison in Washington state where he lives, and asked if Jewish Currents would be interested in working on a project with them. We soon settled on solitary confinement as the subject of our collaboration, with each writer in Chris’s group—Aaron Edward Olson, Antoine Davis, Jonathan Kirkpatrick, and Raymond Williams—focusing on a different stage in the ordeal of isolation, from the first day to the echoes of trauma years later. In April, we published “In the Hole,” a composite narrative that explores the horrors of solitary confinement in the first person. These writers’ accounts may be hard to digest, but they are essential reading given that, as Chris writes in his introduction, the United States holds tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement at any given time. Prison administrators often use isolation to punish prisoners, to “manage” their mental health crises, and even to “protect” them from other prisoners. The effects are devastating.
As is always the case when working with incarcerated writers, we had to get creative in our communication to make this project come together. Prisoners don’t have access to programs like Google Docs, so once I edited the pieces, I transposed my suggestions and questions for each writer into JPay, the prison email system. Sometimes, to clarify details, I’d ask a writer to give me a call—which they could do from new tablets they can use in their cells, though the calls charge by the minute and are cut off after 20 minutes. Chris helped the others revise their work from the inside, and introduced me to Hector Ortiz, an incarcerated artist who provided illustrations for the piece. I communicated with Hector via JPay about a vision for the illustrations, and Chris mailed me the finished drawings; thanks to prison mail inspection policies, I had to wait a couple of weeks for them to arrive so I could scan them.
These barriers to communication with the outside world are part of the reason why many of us rarely hear from incarcerated writers directly. But the accounts in “In the Hole” show why it’s crucial for publications to navigate those obstacles, so we can read the words of those who have experienced the injustices of incarceration firsthand.
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Thank you for your continued support. We wish you a restorative and meaningful holiday season.