Sue Jeong Ka

Dear Readers Beyond Bars,

As of June 25th, 2021, the New York City Department of Correction fully resumed their in-person visits after halting them for 15 months to curtail the spread of COVID-19 in correctional facilities. This “no visitation allowed” period in jails and prisons was akin to the COVID-19 lockdown period in the free world, but worse. While free people were reinventing digital tools to communicate with each other, incarcerated people’s access to communication was even more restricted and controlled. Limited televisits and mail services, which often experience extreme delays, were their only means of connecting to the outside world. In a similar sense, incarcerated people’s access to information became much more constricted. Safety precautions cut off public libraries and books-to-prison organizations from those behind bars. During this time of crisis, information in the carceral system was far from fluid.
Dear Readers Beyond Bars aims to remobilize and revive recently suspended support structures for people within this system. In so doing, this zine explores and fosters new protocols for information exchange between incarcerated and free people. Inspired by letters from incarcerated people, this inaugural issue asked its contributors to respond to the theme “Carceral Information Exchange” in the discursive format of a letter. This epistolary mode might be one of the most direct types of communication people outside prisons and jails have with those on the inside and vice versa. With the help of its dedicated contributors, Issue #0 of Dear Readers Beyond Bars includes many different forms of work. Some are literal letters from incarcerated people and people who sent books to them, as with the pieces by Danny Schaffer from NYC Books Through Bars; Vikki Law and her incarcerated friends; Marc Fischer from Temporary Services and his incarcerated artist correspondent, Angelo; and Tyrel Dale from  X Books. Informative surveys by librarians and archivists constitute another approach; the contributions of Prison Library Support Network and aems emswiler and Noor from Inside Books Project Archive fit this description. Creative voices also emerge with a letter from an anthropomorphic jail library book cart penned by one of its makers, artist and product designer Joel Stoehr; and a short poem to an unknown incarcerated person authored by writer Sarah Wang.

I would like to thank all my contributors as well as my long-time comrades, Andrew Fairweather, Senior Librarian at the Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library; Kim Bobier, art historian and guest editor of this issue; and Nobutaka Aozaki and Gui Young Hwang, my dear artist friends who helped me behind the scenes!

Yours truly,
Sue Jeong Ka

The title of the zine, Dear Readers Beyond Bars, is from the exhibition and public program that I organized in partnership with the New York Public Library’s Seward Park branch and Correctional Services Program during Banned Books Week 2021.